The highest level of college diving has for many years been the goal of Grace Walker.
But how and when the Crawfordsville native landed in Fayetteville, Arkansas wasn’t always that easy.
When Walker’s recruitment process started during her junior year of high school, she didn’t even know the University of Arkansas existed. And when COVID-19 hit, Walker like many of her training teammates at RipFest Indiana Diving Academy, found herself often out of the pool and out of touch with her normal diving regimen.
Fast forward to the first week of January in 2021 and suddenly Walker was on the campus of the University Arkansas — realizing a longtime dream.
Ready or not, she was a Division I collegiate diver.
“I decided because of COVID, that I was going to come in after Christmas,” Walker, who graduated from high scool a semester early, said. “So my first meet was like two weeks after I got to college. I hadn’t trained for about six months because of COVID and everything and so I just got thrown into it. Within my first semester I had SECs, two or three meets, I had everything. It was a wild couple of months.”
Walker gradually worked back to her normal self this spring, placing 21st in the three-meter at the SEC championships, while she watched teammate Brooke Schultz place third at the NCAAs in the one-meter dive final and second in the three-meter dive final.
The bar was set high and the lofty expectations helped make Arkansas as her college choice an easy one.
“I knew what the potential was,” Walker said. “The coach set an expectation and we were all expected to meet it. I really like that drive, and I know not all athletes are like that, but I really enjoy that. I knew what was expected of me whenever I signed here and everyone held you to that and it was expected out of us.”
It didn’t hurt that the head diving coach, Dale Schultz, had Indiana ties as the former Purdue diving coach and associated head coach of RipFest Diving Academy.
His departure to South Carolina in May presented another tough decision for Walker.
Does she stay at Arkansas? Or move on to another school?
And the decision came down to something completely unrelated to diving.
“My biggest thing was if you took diving away from me, I would still choose to stay here,” Walker said. “I love the campus, I love the people, and there’s nothing like the Razorback fans. It makes the Purdue and IU fans like nothing down here. So I was like ‘if I can be happy here, no matter what does happen with the coaching or anything else, at least I know I’ll still be happy at Arkansas.’”
And that meant it was time to get back to work.
After being hesitant about her long-term future in college diving, Walker proved to herself the potential she has going forward.
“I wasn’t taking it super seriously to be honest,” she said. “I was like ‘I don’t even know how long I can last,’ but now I saw and proved to myself that I could do something here. So now it’s just getting myself and my mind in the best shape I possibly can for this next upcoming season and just preparing and working for it. And whatever happens, happens. We are hoping to just improve from last season,”
Even after joining the Razorbacks mid-season, Walker earned freshman of the year for the Arkansas swimming and diving team. She competed in both the one-meter and three-meter springboard as well as the 10-meter platform and plans to continue to compete in all three while focusing on the 10-meter platform.
After being forced to take time off due to COVID-19, Walker said she started to feel nerves return as she returned to the water.
“I used to never be scared of it at all, and then with COVID and everything getting back into it, I realized I might be human; I’m scared of this,” she said. “but the biggest part for me is just doing it. And that sounds like a typical athlete, but for me I just have to tell myself to go.”
She said it all comes down to fine tuning things out of the water. Walker practices up to four times a day — often spending time doing all the small things that lead up to an actual dive or going through the mechanics on dry land.
“As long as you can get those little things down that you don’t have to worry about when you’re 33 feet up in the air, you know that if your mind fails that your body won’t. So it’s just about getting to the point where it’s auto-pilot for your body,” she said. “It’s not like we’re not scared. Like I’m terrified every time I’m up there. But as long as I trust my body, my mind will shut off and let me do what I need to do.”
Overall Walker is happy with her college decision and is looking forward to what is in store over the next few years. She did not lose a year of eligibility, and will still be considered a freshman for a first full year as a Razorback next season.
“It’s everything I could ever ask for,” she said. “And I think the part that I’m so thankful and grateful for that I wasn’t expecting is just the support I have of being an athlete. From everyone around me, I have my own academic advisor, I have a full building just for studying and just having all those extra resources gives a final ‘this is why you did it.’ I put myself through so much training and now I can breath. I’m helped and I’m taken care of and it is everything and more that I could have ever asked for.”