Before Florida State senior Blaire Mulka performed her final dive on 1-meter at the ACC Championships, she looked over at her teammates and gave a smile.
Mulka didn’t feel the pressure of holding about a 10-point lead, which in 1-meter diving terms means just execute your dive without any major mistakes and since it’s the last one, it’s probably the best one.
The nerves didn’t settle in. If anything, she was relaxed and at ease at the end of the board.
What happened next only felt natural, as Mulka received marks of 7.5-8.0 on her inward 1 ½ somersault pike. The fans cheered, her coaches screamed, her teammates couldn’t get to her fast enough to shower her with hugs.
She had won gold.
But getting to that point wasn’t easy.
“It’s so cool to watch what she’s been able to do because it’s been a total turn around for her,” FSU head diving coach John Proctor said. “It’s been fun. We all love Blaire. We’re going to miss her a lot.”
Mulka arrived at Florida State in the fall of 2014, the same time as Proctor. She didn’t have the same international resume or junior national team accolades of some of her teammates, but she bought into the Proctor’s process, went to practice every day willing to work hard to improve and contribute to the team.
It also helped to have an Olympian like Katrina Young as a teammate.
“Practicing with her in general is amazing,” Mulka said. “She is an example of one of those athletes where hard work truly does beat talent.”
After her sophomore year, Mulka and the rest of America watched as Young came back from a near 25-point deficit in order to qualify for the U.S. Olympic Team.
“That was true hard work and it finally paid off for her. That is so inspiring to me,” Mulka said. “I know I’m not the most talented diver, but I know how much I put into this sport. And having that pay off at ACCs was amazing.”
Through her hard work, Mulka began to stand out.
At the ACC Championships in 2017, she qualified for her first final and finished sixth while also scoring points for the team on platform before contributing her first victories in duals against SCAD and Georgia Tech.
After ACCs, Mulka missed out on qualifying for the NCAA Championships at Zones on 1-meter by just over four points after 12 dives. At a qualifying meet, that’s the equivalent of just fractions of a second.
Instead, Mulka watched two of her rookie teammates, Molly Carlson and Ayla Bonniwell advance to NCAAs after each won an ACC title a few weeks prior.
“I went into that wanting to have fun, and then I saw how close I was to making it,” Mulka said. “Obviously, Molly and Ayla were incredible and they earned it. But I realized that I really wanted to be at NCAAs with them.”
It was through that surprised feeling of disappointment that Mulka knew something needed to change.
Mulka was able to have fun and keep loose in practice, but bringing that attitude to meets had always been a challenge. When the competition came, she got tense and felt the weight of her expectations at the top of the diving board.
So Proctor and FSU assistant Anne Olson stressed to Mulka the difference between practice and competition – how to work on techniques so that they become second-nature, how to put in hard work and, most importantly, how to walk away after each dive and move on.
That was something Mulka mastered as a senior.
“There’s always this debate whether or not you can teach anybody how to compete or not. And she’s a perfect example of how you can,” Proctor said. “She’s also the perfect example that it takes a complete and total buy-in on (the student-athlete’s) part.”
Added Mulka: “John and Anne believe in me, and they helped me believe in myself. Once I learned that too, it made all of the difference.”
Once Mulka starting using that mindset to her advantage, the tension started to go away. She found that in situations where she had missed before, she was suddenly right on.
She had more confidence, she felt at ease and, above all, she was enjoying the sport she loved so much.
Mulka started seeing those results as she qualified for the 2017 USA Diving Summer National Championships in both springboard events. She followed that up by winning seven total events over the course of her senior season, all while serving as team captain.
Then, everything came together as she became the third FSU diver in four seasons to win 1-meter at ACCs.
“Eventually you get to a point where everybody is good and the difference is the amount of work you put in leading up to it,” Proctor said. “You know you’ve done the work and you can rely of that, you can beat those guys. That’s what Blaire did at ACCs. There was a two-time Olympian in that field and she won the thing and it was great. I couldn’t be happier for somebody. She’s so deserving of it.”
However, Mulka still has one task left to check off her list.
Mulka this weekend will head to the Knoxville, Tenn., for the 2018 Zone B Championships, which begin on Monday.
That’s the only shot divers have to qualify for the NCAA Championships.
“This year, my goal was making NCAAs,” Mulka said. “So winning ACCs was awesome, but making it to NCAAs is my main goal and I’ve got to go into it like ACCs – just go in, have fun and enjoy it because it could be my last meet ever.”