From six to 12, from a stiff board to a high-end competition diving board. The growth of the city dive program can be counted in tangibles.
But where that growth comes from stems from city dive coach Rhonda Flatz Stouder’s intangibles — her passion for the sport, her drive for more knowledge and her desire for the athletes to succeed.
“It’s been wonderful. She really cares about all of us and is a great role model to have around,” Squalicum senior diver Amber Caron said in a phone interview. “She loves to learn. This past summer she went and spent her own money and went to a camp in Indiana to become a better coach for us. I think that’s what brings us closer.”
Along with a summer camp and increasing her workload teaching dive at Arne Hanna Aquatic Center, Flatz Stouder also worked with the city, the swim coaches and the three schools to raise funding for a new competition diving board in the offseason to replace the old, stiff Duraflex board the divers were training on.
“She found the money, the city put in $5,000 and stepped up and got us a new board,” Squalicum swim coach Randy Elsner said in a phone interview.
The result is a thriving dive program.
Several new faces, many coming from gymnastics, have come out to the dive team and Flatz Stouder believes seven or eight of the 12 divers could make the state tournament.
“It’s amazing,” Caron said. “They all have an interest and love for the sport and are blossoming in it, so that’s very cool. It’s something to leave behind for my girls and make a lasting impression.”
It helps that Flatz Stouder’s coaching style connects with the athletes as well.
“Rhonda definitely likes to push them,” Elsner said. “Not in a dangerous, forceful way, but in a confident, positive way.”
She rarely lets a diver wait in line, instead having stations where the athletes rotate through. She also works in stages, allowing divers with myriad levels of experiences to benefit. Every diver must master each basic step before moving onto the next.
“Don’t practice until you get it right, practice until you can’t get it wrong,” Flatz Stouder frequently says.
Flatz Stouder has 35 years of swim coach experience in Oregon, where she retired in 2012. She also was a collegiate diver for Oregon State University in the early 1980s.
After retiring, Flatz Stouder moved to Bellingham to join her husband, Mark. To keep busy, she was a lifeguard at Arne Hanna Aquatic Center. When the former city dive coach had to cut back participation with the three schools last fall, former Squalicum swim coach Steve Gibb approached Flatz Stouder.
“Do you have any dive experience?” he asked.
Of course, her response was yes, even though she hadn’t taught diving in more than three decades.
“I love coaching. I love coaching high school kids,” Flatz Stouder said in a phone interview. “And oh my gosh, it was so much fun.”
Flatz Stouder stuck around for the boys’ season, guiding five divers to the state tournament.
But Flatz Stouder wasn’t satisfied, feeling “inadequate” with her dive experience, she said.
So she went to a diving camp in Indiana, where she learned from some of the best dive coaches in the country.
“One of the things that is really good is that even if I’ve been away from it, the physics doesn’t change,” Flatz Stouder said. “Diving is a game of bodies and physics. ... A lot of it was confirmation, what I learned, confirmation that I had very good basics and I teach in a really great way.”
Along with Caron, Bellingham senior Sunni Sternhagen and Red Raiders junior Chloe Roth participated at the Class 2A State Championships last year.
The three are hoping a few more city divers will join them at the King County Aquatic Center in November. With Flatz Stouder at the helm, they are certainly on the right track.
Reach Joshua Hart at 360-715-2238 or firstname.lastname@example.org.