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Plunging into a pool of emotion

Rival divers forced to pair up

CAMBRIDGE -- Doria Holbrook was an hour early. She wanted everything perfect, everything in order. So she stalked the pool deck, fixing mats, talking to coaches, concocting a practice plan and, just maybe, an escape plan.

This was all wrong. This team, a conglomeration of MIT and Tufts, was her team. This was her coach. This was her life. Holbrook, who won the Division 3 national title on the 3-meter diving platform as a freshman in 2005 for MIT and lost it to Kendall Swett last season, was preparing to reclaim the title. It was to be her first practice.

Except Swett would be there, too.

"She was definitely surprised, no question about it," said Brad Snodgrass, diving coach for MIT and Tufts. "And a little bit concerned about, 'What does this mean?' I think that's a really natural reaction, as she said in a real honest moment on the phone, 'Oh, I had everything worked out. School's going great. Diving's going great. What does this mean?' "

Swett and Holbrook, a pair of juniors who may be the two best divers in Division 3 (and could probably be equally stellar in Division 1), had suddenly gone from adversaries to teammates. Swett, who dived for Lake Forest College, outside of Chicago, had transferred before her junior year to Tufts. But because of the lack of diving facilities at the school, she would be training, five days a week, with Holbrook.

"I definitely had concerns, but it wasn't necessarily because she was coming," said Holbrook, sitting with Swett by MIT's pool before practice last Wednesday night. "It was just like, there's this really great diver coming, and I have to kind of get mentally prepared. I'm not going to be the star athlete on the pool deck every time."

But even with a strained first phone call between the two not more than an hour after Holbrook found out, and a tear-stained blowup on the pool deck on a training trip in Puerto Rico, the near opposites -- in diving style, personality, and interests -- have found a peaceful balance.

For now. The competition that nearly overwhelmed them will be renewed this week when they duel again for the Division 3 title in Houston. Most likely, one will come back to Boston with that title.

One will come back runner-up.

Thrust together
Swett knew, even as she started her freshman year at Lake Forest, that the school's academics would not fulfill her goals, with two art history professors and no non-Western art in the curriculum. So, after an unsuccessful attempt to transfer to New York University, she applied to Tufts -- and only Tufts -- after her sophomore year. It was all about academics. Well, mostly.

"And then the other part of it," Swett said, "was Doria and Brad."

With little diving competition in the Midwest, Swett figured that training every day with Holbrook would be a benefit, ratcheting up her skill level. And Holbrook's, too. The only problem was, until Swett got that acceptance letter, no one told Holbrook.

She got the call while on an internship with Boeing in Seattle. She had to sift through a raft of emotions, not easy for someone who "doesn't do feelings." It wasn't that she was upset about Swett training with her, or that she was intimidated. She just wasn't sure that Snodgrass, a paternal figure in her life, would have enough time for both of them.

And she wasn't alone.

"I don't know how to deal with this," Swett said. "I was like, I have to be focused. I have to come in and be relaxed. But how do I relax when the girl that I'm most competitive with is right next to me? How do I do that? Every single day. And it was for a long, long time -- maybe until like a month ago, or even now, still -- we come to practice and it's not like a meet. But it is."

And then came the actual meet.

January 20. MIT vs. Tufts. But, in many ways, it was Doria vs. Kendall, one diving after the other on the 3-meter board. Neither missed. It was, according to Snodgrass, some of the best diving in the country. And, after Holbrook won that event, it was on to the 1-meter board.

But something happened. Holbrook hit the board, her left index finger making contact. The lifeguard didn't get in the water fast enough for Swett's liking. So Swett went in.

It was so far from where they had started, from the anxiety of that first day at the pool, to the conversation in Puerto Rico Jan. 3, from the tears and accusations and hurt.

"There were times when I had a bad practice or she had a bad practice and it just . . . " said Swett, her voice trailing off. "You feel all of this pressure. 'I'm not going to make it. I'm not going to do well. Nationals is going to suck this year.' There's no words to describe how angry both of us had been."

To this point, now, where concern trumped competitiveness, where diving in after Holbrook felt simply natural.

Peaceful coexistence
They argue their differences: Swett, the art history major, proclaiming her love for colors, anointing herself a hippie; Holbrook, the mechanical engineering major, a self-proclaimed "redneck engineer who likes guns and things that blow up." Swett, the age-group diver who fought through years of injuries in her teens to emerge in Division 3; Holbrook, who turned down a Division 1 pole vaulting scholarship to Purdue to attend MIT and started seriously diving about six months before winning a national title.

But that doesn't explain enough, as they finish each other's sentences, sip from the same plastic cup of lemonade, ask each other questions and probe for answers.

"Kendall is more interested in the arts," Snodgrass said. "Doria is more into numbers. So academically they have different interests. But sometimes, I think those two are more closely related than you might think. So, yeah, in some ways they appear different, but I don't think they're that different. And maybe that's a big source of their competition [that] they are so similar in their abilities and in their drive.

"Now they see each other every day for a couple of hours and they're forced to come up with something new, to come up with a deeper relationship. It's new territory for both of them. They have to coexist and they have to sort of tolerate or understand or see the other's point of view in order to keep that friendship going. We're very much a family. So I think of them more as sisters than as friends."

They might argue that. But, as it seems on this day, less than a week before they head to the nationals in Houston, they are more interested in giggling -- and hitting the hot tub -- than they are in the tension of the upcoming meet. They know it will be big, though they say they haven't talked about it yet.

Holbrook insists they will be the top two; she's certain. She knows what training together has meant to them.

"I was definitely concerned that the pressure of seeing each other every day and not just training, but de facto competing against each other every day, would be more stress than either of them wanted, so I knew there could be some challenges ahead," Snodgrass said. "I had a feeling that presented with this challenge they would both rise to the occasion and really show their best side.

"That's one thing that the competition and the pressure can do. It can bring out the worst in people. It can also bring out the best."

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at abenjamin@globe.com.

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