By David Willis
---- — Zoe Keffer’s friends and family thought she was crazy.
Andover diving coach Becky Pierce thought Zoe was out of her mind.
Longtime Golden Warriors coach Marilyn Fitzgerald was panicked.
How, just three weeks after shattering her nose in the middle of a dive and a day before she was scheduled to undergo surgery for the injury, could Keffer possibly be back on the board wanting to jump?
“We were having heart attacks,” said Fitzgerald.
But Keffer’s diving career has never been conventional, and the danger of the sport is part of the excitement.
“Diving is very, very scary,” said Keffer. “When you are out on the board, you realize how little control you have over your body. It’s very scary, but it is also very exciting. I love it.”
Everyone involved in Andover swimming was stunned when, in the middle of her junior season, Keffer decided — with no background — to become a diver after 2 1/2 years as a successful high school swimmer.
“It almost never happens,” said Pierce. “It’s very unusual to take it up that late.”
But less than a year after attempting her first dive, Keffer has fallen head-over-heals in love with her event and has emerged as a top diver on the powerhouse Andover swimming and diving team.
“I absolutely loved it from my first dive,” said Keffer. “And I feel like I am a naturally stronger and more confident person since I started to dive.”
Since childhood, Keffer had been a competitive swimmer. She then became a promising member of the Golden Warriors, placing fifth in the 500 freestyle (5:29.19) at the Division 1 state meet as a sophomore.
So it stunned everyone when, midway through last season, she declared that she wanted to take up diving.
“During high school practice one day, I decided I wanted to try diving,” said Keffer, who also had no background in gymnastics. “I always thought it looked like fun and so I went up on the board and tried it and thought it was great. Everyone thought I was really crazy.”
No one was more surprised than Pierce.
“I wouldn’t say she was crazy, but very surprising,” said Pierce. “But she was also very determined to try something new. She also wanted to get the team more points, and she did really well right away.”
Keffer continued to impress when she dived in her first meet.
“Everyone was wondering, after qualifying for sections as a swimmer, why would I want to dive?” Keffer said. “Then everyone was really surprised in my first meet when I did well. My first dive I got three 6’s and everyone was like, ‘Wow, you are really good.’”
But a terrifying incident brought her season — and nearly her career — to an end when she suffered a broken nose during a practice dive.
“It was really a freak accident,” she said. “I went for a dive during practice and kneed myself in the face. I hit the water and my nose was just shattered.
“I really didn’t know what happened at first. Then I got out of the water and everyone was freaking out. Then it started to hurt bad and I realized what had happened. It was very scary.”
Keffer needed 10 stitches on the bridge of her nose and was due for surgery three weeks later.
But there was a day, after the stitches were removed, before she underwent surgery the following day, that she was medically allowed to dive.
But would she really dive the day before nose surgery?
“I went to practice the day before surgery and said I wanted to dive,” she said. “I figured, I was already having nose surgery the next day. What was the worst I could do to myself?
“The injury and the time away from diving actually made me realize how much I missed it and how much I wanted to get back and do it.”
That fierce dedication greatly impressed her diving coach.
“The first day of the season we asked her if she wanted to dive or swim again,” Pierce said. “And she said she wanted to dive without missing a beat. It would have been a lot safer to swim, but she wanted to dive. That said a lot about her and that she really loves what she does.”
Now a senior, Keffer is a quad-captain and one of Andover’s best divers. And you need only to look at her face to see her excitement for the sport.
“What you have to see is the smile every day,” Fitzgerald said.
“Even if she isn’t happy with the way she is diving that day, she is smiling because she is out there. Now, I don’t want her encouraging too many swimmers to try diving, but as much as we would love to see her in the lanes, we love what she is doing.”
For Keffer, who hopes to qualify for sections this fall, she said her diving experience has meant more than just having a lot of fun.
“I wanted to have the ability to perform under pressure,” said Keffer, who plans to study special education in college next year. “When I was a swimmer, I always had problems with mental toughness.
“Diving, having the ability and courage to do it, has helped me a lot and I am so glad I did it.”
For a video interview with Andover diver Zoe Keffer, along with highlights of her diving, visit eagletribune.com/sports