Much like the work of Antoni Gaudi’s Basilica de la Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain, Molly Carlson’s career as a Florida State diver went unfinished. She had just qualified for her fourth NCAA Championships when the COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of all athletics.
But looking back, Carlson didn’t need that one last meet to solidify herself as one of the greatest divers to don the Garnet and Gold. Just like the Sagrada, Familia, what she did throughout her career will stand the test of time and go down as one of the greatest in FSU history.
And to top it off, she’s the only Seminole to win the ACC Women’s Swimming and Diving Scholar-Athlete of the Year and she’s set to graduate on Saturday with a degree in psychology.
Carlson was on pace to have the NCAA meet of her life, but instead a final 71-point scoring reverse 2 ½ somersault from 10-meter at the 2020 Zone B Championships for fifth place was the somber note to end her historical career.
But despite the heartbreak, Carlson packed her things in Tallahassee then returned to her Canadian roots in the midst of winter to live with her mom and sister in order to pursue a new dream with that signature smile on her face.
A little daredevil growing up in Thunder Bay, Ontario, Carlson took to gymnastics as a kid, but her older sister, Megan, found joy in swimming. Thus, after going to the gym, she went to the pool to watch her sister practice alongside her mom.
Instead of keeping an eye on Megan, she studied the divers.
One day, when Carlson was 11, she realized she wanted to give diving a try and worked up the courage to ask her mother what she thought of the idea.
Her mom answered with an ultimatum – “It’s either diving or gymnastics?”
She thought long and hard about it and weighed all of her options, but she made the choice to trade her leotard in for a swimsuit.
Turns out, her fearless spirit helped her make the transition and she burst on to the junior national scene in just her first year competing in Canada.
Throughout her junior career, Carlson earned 12 event titles career and qualified for spots on several junior national teams that competed all over the world.
Carlson competed in Junior Pan American Games, where she took home gold in 2013 and 2015 on 3-meter. She competed at the 2014 Youth Olympics and she also competed at the FINA Junior World Championships.
It’s safe to say diving was the right choice.
But once Carlson got older, the thought of what’s next often entered her mind. Canadians couldn’t really receive athletic scholarships to compete at University. She didn’t want to turn professional as just a teenager.
Instead, she knew she wanted to go earn a scholarship to dive for a school in the United States, and she knew how the recruiting process went since watching her sister Megan go through it to swim at Lynn University.
While at a national meet in 2015, she noticed FSU head diving coach John Proctor coaching former Seminoles Tyler Roberge and Dylan Grisell. It took a couple of days at the meet in order for Molly to walk over and introduce herself.
“When I first met John, I thought he was intense and I didn’t think I could dive for him,” Carlson said. “I was so intimidated by an American coach because I wasn’t sure how to show my interest in the process.
“But when I actually first talked to John, I discovered that he’s actually very chill and he’s such a family guy. He could talk to anyone as if they were his own daughter and that’s when I felt comfortable around him and I knew I could get the ball rolling.”
Even though the interaction was brief, Proctor still remembers those first moments.
“She just kinda came over and she was a little shy and was a ‘Hey how you doin’,’ and we sat there and talked for a moment or two. And as soon as I asked her if she’d like to come to FSU for a recruiting visit to see what Florida State is all about, she perked up and gave a big smile and said, ‘Oh yeah! That’d be great!’”
"I was super upset that my mom was making me chose between gymnastics or diving. As soon as I got into pool, I just knew it was this was the beginning of something special. I would go to practice and fall in love with diving more each day."SENIOR DIVER MOLLY CARLSON
In just his third season as head diving coach, Proctor had three signees on campus for their freshmen year, including Carlson. Once she signed her letter of intent to join the Seminoles, a familiar face, Aidan Faminoff, pledged to the Noles as well. Despite being from opposite sides of Canada, Carlson and Faminoff became friends while spending time together on national teams and at many diving meets throughout their junior diving years.
She also had Ayla Bonniwell in her signing class. The three of them came from different backgrounds – Bonniwell grew up diving in her backyard with her parents coaching. Carlson was a junior national Canadian phenom that had competed internationally and Aidan came to FSU with international experience.
“That first big group, especially Molly, Ayla, Aidan they had these huge personalities,” Proctor said. “Ayla was very focused and she’s always been that way. She’s no nonsense and then you had the Molly and Aidan show. It was always entertaining. They were all really tight right from the beginning, and they formed a pack.”
Like any freshman student-athlete, the group spent that first year feeling out everything between training and getting to know their teammates and getting used to life at Florida State. There were days that Proctor got the best of them and then there were days where they gave Proctor a run for his money.
“That first year was a learning experience for me,” Proctor said. “It taught me to let go a little bit. I came from an age group coaching where we had a system that brought kids up from age five all the way through 18. And everyone did it the same way and they knew the expectations. With these guys, they were all coming from somewhere else. I couldn’t control everything. I needed to find a way to set up an environment where they could do well. Sometimes that was pushing them and other times it was backing off.”
At the end of their freshman season, with all of the main training behind them, the group didn’t know what to expect out of their first ACCs.
“We were actually terrified for our first ACCs,” Carlson said. “It was our first conference meet and we walked in there without expectations, which I think is why it was so much fun because we could go in there and nobody knew who we were.”
Carlson kicked things off with a fourth-place finish in the 3-meter final before the she won bronze on 1-meter with Bonniwell standing on top of the podium with gold. A day later, Carlson was crowned the platform champion and took home her first ACC Diving MVP honors.
That momentum was carried into NCAAs, where both Carlson and Bonniwell won All-America honorable mention.
Carlson was later named the ACC Diver of the Year.
“After our freshman year was over, we saw what we could do as a team and as individuals,” Carlson said. “We wanted more, so we thought let’s bunker down and do three more years of this and see how far it could take us. That freshman year we put it out on the street that we were coming.”
Heading into the 2017-18 season, the Noles had one of the best diving squads in the league. Now with the addition of Cam Thatcher, a sophomore transfer from Stanford and rookie Joshua Davidson from Texas, the Seminoles were poised to turn things up a few notches under Proctor.
Training was going great. Now that Carlson knew what to expect, the hard work came easier. She pushed her limits every day, knowing that’s what it would take to stay at the top.
But one day in practice just before the mid-season invitational, she hit the water at around 30 miles per hour on a front two-and-a-half twister from 10-meter.
Something wasn’t right.
“As soon as I hit the water,” Carlson said, “I just had that feeling that all of my goals were going to be put on hold.”
All of the bumps, bruises, stress fractures and sprains she suffered while growing up had finally caught up with her.
The training staff discovered ganglion cysts, causing non-mobility in her left wrist. They decided to operate right away, meaning Carlson could miss the rest of the season.
“My heart broke,” Carlson said. “I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to dive ACCs and, if I was, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to do platform.”
After being out of the water over the holiday break, Carlson was cleared to get back in the pool in January of 2018. But she wasn’t allowed to grab her hands on any entry.
Instead, she had to enter the water making a fist on each dive, thus opening the door for scoring deductions.
Imagine a boxer only using one hand in a fight, or a tennis player struggling to grip their racket.
“She was having a hard time landing on her hands,” Proctor said. “The way divers are supposed to grab their hands was just extremely painful for her. So, she had to adjust and land on her fists. She went through a period where she was actually embarrassed because she knew it wasn’t right. The funny thing was, she was doing great dives and still beating people.”
Leading up to ACCs, with doubt and uncertainty in her mind, Carlson and Proctor made the plan for her to enter each dive on her fists.
But that didn’t really sit right.
Instead, Carlson decided if she could perform a proper entry when they went to practice at the Greensboro Aquatic Center the day before, she’d do that in the meet.
When it came time for 1-meter prelims, she decided to power through.
The next day, she walked away from the meet winning the bronze medal on 3-meter.
She followed that performance by qualifying for NCAAs.
Carslon then took it one step further and earned All-American honorable mention on 3-meter after placing 15th.
After the academic year, Carlson needed time to recover and spent the summer in Canada. She went and worked with her mother, Kathleen Trivers, who at the time was the internet content new media officer at Banff National Park.
It was during that time at home where she got that first taste of what life would be like without diving.
“I was in the most beautiful place in Canada and I got to see the world through a working lens,” Carlson said. “I knew this would help me with the healing process and my time away just made more so grateful for diving and Florida State. At the end of the Summer, I was ready to go back.”
But more hurdles awaited Carlson in her junior season. The cyst grew back, and, despite a quicker recovery time, she was cleared to compete on 10-meter for the ACC Championships, after a hiatus of nearly two years.
She repeated as the ACC bronze medalist on 3-meter and made the final on platform. She had the highest individual point total of any female divers at the meet, thus earning her second ACC Meet MVP honor. But after putting everything she had into ACCs and qualifying for NCAAs, she had nothing left for the national meet.
After pouring their hearts into a third-straight bid to the NCAA Championships, Carlson and Bonniwell were disappointed with the results.
“Both Ayla and I were just drained at NCAAs,” Carlson said. “We fought through injuries. It wasn’t our best meet, but it made us realize we needed to make some changes.”
When they got back to Tallahassee, they sat down and came up with a plan with one goal in mind – be ready for March.
Carlson hit the weight room hard in the summer before the season, to make sure she was in the best shape possible.
Her wrist was feeling good, but she knew she needed to manage herself and not push too hard, since that was part of the problem during her junior year.
She needed to “Trust the process” – something that Proctor instilled in his divers for the season.
“Yeah, that’s something I said,” added Proctor. “It was to remind them not to freak out and remember we needed to approach this last season differently than the previous three.”
Perhaps it taught them to learn from their past three seasons and instead of putting the pedal to the metal and grinding away, to find another way.
Throughout the season, diving was strength in the FSU lineup. Among the 18 events competed in dual meets, either Carlson or Bonniwell brought the Noles a win 12 times, including seven 1-2 finishes.
When it was time for ACCs, Proctor just knew his team was going to steal the show.
Carlson went out there and arguably gave the best performance at an ACC Championships in school history: Platform gold behind a personal-best score of 297.25.
ACC Meet MVP, for the third time.
In their last event together, Carlson and Bonniwell won gold and silver on 3-meter, becoming the first women’s duo from FSU to go one-two at an ACCs in a diving event since 2004.
And Davidson brought home the first men’s diving victory for Florida State since 2010 when he won 1-meter.
The plan was working perfectly heading into the NCAA qualifying meet at the University of Georgia, which was also the site of the 2020 Women’s NCAA Championships.
Carlson proved to be one of the most consistent divers at the meet, securing a spot in each of the three diving events for nationals. She couldn’t wait to be back in Athens the following week with Bonniwell for one last run, but instead on March 12, Proctor called to tell her it was all over.
“I picked up the phone and he sounded like he had been crying and he started this speech and said, ‘Just remember, you ended your career on a 71-point dive,” Carlson said. “He told me not to look at the negatives but to think of the positives; he knew this was my year to crush it at NCAAs and make top eight, but he knew we needed to look back at the past four years together.
“I thanked him for being a father-figure during this process, because he was. Tallahassee was my home away from home. We had an amazing four years together. We showed the world who FSU diving was and I showed myself who I am. We were really lucky we got to go out with a bang at ACCs and Zones. Some of these sports didn’t even get that opportunity.”
"I thanked him for being a father-figure during this process, because he was. Tallahassee was my home away from home. We had an amazing four years together. We showed the world who FSU diving was and I showed myself who I am."Carlson
As hard as it is for her and her teammates to close this chapter, another thrilling one awaits.
Once again, Carlson is making a trade. Only this time, she’ll stay a diver, but she’ll be doing tricks from heights of 20-meters instead of one, three or 10-meters. And instead of diving boards, her platform will be the base of some of the most beautiful places in the world.
Following the pandemic, Carlson will start training to become a cliff diver.
“I just wasn’t ready to give up diving,” Carlson said. “But with all of my wrist injuries I just couldn’t keep competing, but then I stumbled upon cliff diving.”
One day after practice in November of 2019 with her partner in crime, Carlson and Faminoff were performing tricks off of 10-meter for their Instagram profiles.
In one of those posts, Carlson decided to put out a video of one of her dives along with a poll to her followers that said “Red Bull Cliff Diving? Yes or No.”
At least 90 percent of her closest 6,000 followers answered, YES!
“Cliff diving is just a whole new level, it’s a completely different sport,” Proctor said. “When you watch it, it’s nuts. If you watch someone do a build-up set on 10-meter, it will blow your mind. She started doing a couple of those things and you could see the look on her face and you just knew the wheels were turning. I mean, the first trick she did was very correct and she had a really good feet-first rip.”
After that discovery, Carlson would stay after practice every so often to play with new feet-first dives, with Proctor observing, even though he, too, was learning how to coach it on the job.
“It was fun for me because I’ve never done high diving,” added Proctor. “I’ve certainly never coached it. We’d be laughing and joking about it. I mean I’ve seen it on TV a couple of times, and I’d tell her ‘Let me see if I can walk you through it.’”
The Red Bull series employs eight divers and also has a pool of wild card divers from all over the world. Each competition contains 12 divers, all eight and four wild cards.
As soon as the quarantine is lifted, Carlson will travel an hour each way from her home in Canada to Montreal to train at the 1976 Olympic Pool, which is host to the only 20-meter indoor platform in the world.
Carlson’s plan is to start competing in 2021 with hopes of becoming one of the eight.
The first trick she did was very correct and she had a really good feet-first rip. It’s like the light bulb went off and she seems like she’d be a natural at it. Molly’s a beautiful diver no matter if she’s landing on her hands or her feet. She has style. She has that pretty form and she looks good doing it.FSU HEAD DIVING COACH JOHN PROCTOR
High diving is also an event at the FINA World Championships, which are held every other year. The event is also expected to be added the 2024 Olympics in Paris. Thus, Carlson’s dream of being an Olympian is still alive.
Her career at FSU may have gone unfinished, but Carlson’s career after Florida State is set to soar to new heights.