Ask CeCe Pennella what makes her one of the best handful of divers ever to spring off a one-meter board in the lower South Sound and the Black Hills High School senior gives an unexpected answer.
Pennella has reached the Class 2A state meet all four years of her high school career, finishing third a year ago. She set aside a gymnastic career after eighth grade to focus on diving, spends hours driving to the King County Aquatic Center in Federal Way to train with the Dive Seattle club.
Yet, she says, “I’m not really competitive.”
Instead of focusing on scores or placings, she tries to internalize her successes.
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“I do have a determined nature,” she said. “I want to be the best for myself and keep a positive attitude. It’s not forced, it’s all natural.”
Heather Wilder, diving coach at both Tumwater School District high schools and one of Pennella’s former coaches at Black Hills Gymnastics Club, agrees to a point.
“CeCe’s competitive, but she’s also completely easygoing,” Wilder said. “Some kids are just devastated if they miss a dive. She doesn’t let the little stuff rattle her.”
Pennella’s approach helped her to win last weekend’s District 4 meet at The Evergreen State College by nearly 100 points over second place Mary Lang of team champion Aberdeen, 394.5-299.0. Her victory, along with first place finishes for Rylee Denney in the 200-yard individual medley (2:20.01) and 100 butterfly (1:00.92) and Emma Prybylski in the 500 freestyle (5:31.07), lifted Black Hills to a third-place finish in the 11-team event.
When the state 2A diving competition begins Friday at KCAC, Pennella will be seeded second behind Archbishop Murphy’s Kelsey Bassett, who scored 400.85 in the District 1/2 bi-district meet. Wilder thinks her biggest competition will come from closer to home.
“I think Lydia Williams from Foss (seeded fifth) is the one to beat,” she said. “CeCe should be in the top three, but any of the kids in the top eight can win it.”
When Pennella tired of gymnastics four years ago, Wilder was there with another idea.
“I was getting into a rut,” Pennella said. “I knew I wanted to do a high school sport but the only other option I could see was cheerleading.”
Fortunately, Wilder has coached both gymnastics and diving since graduating from Tumwater High School in 1999.
“I tell all my gymnastics classes on the first day that if they live in Tumwater, there’s diving at the high schools and I’m the coach,” she said, laughing. “I thought CeCe was a lovely gymnast, but it hits a lot of girls around eighth grade that if they’re not going to make the Olympics it’s a tough sport to stay with.”
Pennella first tried diving in a Lacey Parks and Recreation class taught by Wilder.
“I loved being able to combine my gymnastics background with new challenges,” she said.
Her quick adaptation to soaring into water wasn’t a given. Some gymnasts flop at diving for an elemental reason.
“They can’t get over having to ‘land’ head-first. Gymnasts are used to landing on their feet,” said Wilder, who puts Pennella in the same class as former River Ridge diver Asha Srivastava, winner of state titles in 2007 and 2008. “Divers are daring, nervy and a little crazy, like stunt people in the movies.”
Pennella combined a bit of daring with a methodical approach in developing her repertoire of dives. This season, she did add an inward-one-and-a-half for a higher degree of difficulty.
“Mostly, though, I’ve been doing cleanup work, making everything stronger,” she said. “I was already doing a back-one-and-a-half and a front-double.”
Black Hills head swim coach Henry Valz gave her another new role: team captain. In some Seattle-area programs with a dozen or more divers, one will be named a captain, to help lead her event group. Locally, with few divers per school, it’s rare to see a diver as captain.
“CeCe’s a dynamic team leader,” said Valz. “She’s got a presence that draws people to her.”
“What’s a nice word for ‘bossy?’” Wilder joked. “She’s very good at organizing things and talking to people.”
Pennella doesn’t plan to dive in college, focusing instead on nursing studies, having been accepted to Washington State and the University of Portland. But she envisions coaching one day and has been working with Black Hills swimmer Brielle Bryan on her diving skills.
“It is unusual to have a diver for a captain,” she says. “I consider myself the captain and mentor to our divers. I try to be more of a leader and friend to the rest of the team.”