Oct. 25, 2011
TALLAHASSEE, Fla.- She’s owned her trade since she was seven years old and really, it was no big deal. The thrill of flipping through the air without a safety but the water below is a feeling that she loves. Flip, twist, rip, she’d rock it.
Her talents took her to places kids dream about and pretend to go to when they’re playing in the backyard. She’s performed in front of millions of people alongside some of the greatest athletes in the world while wearing the American flag on her swimsuit. A member of the 2008 USA Olympic Team as a synchronized diver, FSU junior Ariel Rittenhouse’s has battled through the post-Olympic dip and her comeback journey now brings her to Tallahassee with a goal in mind that would rewrite Seminole history.
“I want to win NCAA’s,” Rittenhouse said. “That would be awesome, but I just started back, so I’m getting back into the swing of things.”
Both Rittenhouse and head FSU diving coach Pat Jeffrey agree that it’s going to be a tough climb to get back into that spotlight, but half the battle is already won.
“Both Ariel and I know that it is going to take everything we’ve got to win NCAA’s and ultimately get to London,” Jeffrey said. “But to see her spark and passion back means we’re halfway there. This is a special kid.”
With the season underway and three meets down, Rittenhouse is well on her way to returning to the form she knows. At the All-Florida Invite, she posted her season high score of 333.90 on the 3-meter springboard, over 30 points ahead of the next competitor.
A decorated diver and a former USA Diving Team member, Rittenhouse’s journey began in Santa Cruz, Calif. where she started diving in lieu of gymnastics. She got serious about her career when she was in seventh grade and she moved to Los Angeles for a few years prior to relocating to Indianapolis, Ind. to train at the National Diving Training Center.
After the countless competitions, both nationally and internationally, Rittenhouse went back to her roots in Los Angeles to dive for the University of Southern California. This time she wouldn’t stay as long as she planned. Her laid back Santa Cruz upbringing just didn’t mesh with the LA lifestyle.
“USC just wasn’t the right fit for me and I actually quit halfway through my sophomore season.” Rittenhouse said. “I was struggling with training the same way that I’ve been for year and it wasn’t fresh. It was hard to reconcile all of that because I love my coach and teammates. I actually considered retiring.”
In the beginning
Shortly after moving to Los Angeles for the first time, she showed promise at such a young age by medaling at her first international junior competition at age 13, claiming a gold medal on the 1-meter springboard and silver on the platform at the 2003 Junior Pan-American Games.
Gold and silver would only be the start of her collection.
When she was 14, Rittenhouse and her mom packed their bags yet again, but this time, they were putting their lives on hold heading to the National Diving Training Center in Indianapolis. From the second they stepped on the plane, diving came before everything. She gave up her normal teenage life of classes, cliques and prom dates and enrolled in an online school in order to accommodate her rigorous training schedule.
From there, Rittenhouse actually found her niche and it was with one of her closest friends, Kelci Bryant. Bryant was another outstanding diver that showed international promise with a similar stature and diving style to that of Rittenhouse. Although both shined on their own, their moms were thinking something else.
“Yeah, it was actually our mom’s idea to have us dive syncro,” Rittenhouse said in a tone that was suggesting, `I guess mothers do know best.’ From that day on, the 3-meter synchronized diving event would be her baby.
A family trade
Besides knowing what’s best for her daughter, Swimming Hall of Fame member Sharon Rittenhouse comes from a family where competing on the international stage is just a way of life. Sharon was an Olympic Silver medalist in the 400 IM at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.
Sharon’s brother and Ariel’s uncle, Mike Finneran was a diver in the 1972 Munich Olympics. He actually recorded the first perfect dive in the history of the sport. Although it seems as if the three would be competitive at family functions boasting with their past achievements, the Rittenhouse and Finneran families take more of a laid back approach.
“My Uncle Mike actually gives me good advice,” Rittenhouse said. “He’s always been there and supported me throughout my career.”
The Olympic ties extend even further with Sharon and Mike’s mother, Carolyn Finneran. She was the team manager for the 1976 Olympic Swim team in Montreal.
The synchronized journey
Synchronized diving is just more than two divers doing their dives at the same time. Think about the physics and timing that go into just doing a simple dive. It takes similar statures, styles and the same talent level in order for a dive to be executed correctly, thus finding a partner is next to impossible. For Rittenhouse and Bryant, it just came naturally.
The pair burst onto the national scene at the age of 16, when they took the silver medal at the 2006 Canada Cup on the 3-meter synchronized springboard. From there, they didn’t look back, scoring silver at the 2006 FINA Diving World Cup and a gold at the 2006 FINA Grand Prix Super Final on the 3-meter springboard. In 2007 they would add another silver medal to their collection from the Pan American Games.
At 17, her life would change forever.
The Olympic year
The year 2008 for Bryant and Rittenhouse began with a bronze medal performance at the FINA Diving World Cup, followed by another bronze at the FINA Diving World Series event before the Olympic Team Trials.
In the individual and synchronized events at Trials, Bryant and Rittenhouse didn’t dive well enough to fill the first spots on the team, so they would have to go to a selection camp in order for a shot at the Olympics. From there, Bryant and Rittenhouse put forth their best efforts as a pair, but they’d have await their fate and test their nerves until they heard what the final decision would be.
A week later, her mom came into practice in tears, holding something precious. It was a former Olympic team member’s Olympic Ring marked specially for Rittenhouse. That was it; she and Bryant had made the team.
The passing on of the Olympic Rings is a USA diving tradition. An old member lends their ring to new members until they receive a team ring of their own after the Olympics.
“That moment when I found out that we made the Olympic team, it was overwhelming.” Rittenhouse said.
Their efforts in the Olympic Games would land them just shy of the medal stand, but overall, it was an life changing experience.
“It was a little disappointing because we placed 3rd in the World Cup earlier in the year, but fourth place, at the Olympics is still amazing,” Rittenhouse said. “We dove so well and I was happy with our performance.”
The next chapter
After the high of Beijing, Bryant and Rittenhouse would go their separate ways. Bryant is currently a member of the University of Minnesota’s diving team and Rittenhouse would head back Los Angeles to USC. But after a disappointing freshman year she knew she’d have to change something again. After walking away from the sport halfway through her sophomore season, Rittenhouse went back to the drawing board in order to find a place that better suited her. Florida State came across her radar when she found out that current freshman Ford McLiney had signed to be a Seminole. Rittenhouse dove a lot of competitions with the Kansas City native and decided to reconsider Florida State after turning them down when she was being recruited as a senior in high school.
After the first phone call she made to Jeffrey, she had a good feeling. After her visit to Tallahassee, she felt as if she were at home and knew this was a perfect fit for her all around -the team, the coach and the city of Tallahassee.
“Tallahassee just reminds me of being in Santa Cruz. It’s laid back,” Rittenhouse said. “Coach Pat is awesome. I knew from the first conversation I had with him that he was a great coach and I would do well here.”
Their teamwork, camaraderie and Jeffrey’s coaching style is what attracted a diver like Rittenhouse to Florida State. Jeffery is the type of coach that coaches like he competed. The two-time Olympian and five-time National Champion strives to make his athletes feel as if they’re good enough to make it to where he once stood. With his positive outlook, charisma and enthusiasm for the sport he continues to produce some of the best divers in the country every season.
“The top notch support the FSU swimming and diving program receives gives me the ability to create all of the opportunities a diver would need to win at any level, including the Olympic Games,” Jeffrey said. “It is so satisfying to watch an athlete like Ariel come here and immediately take advantage of everything that we work so hard to provide.”
Now with Rittenhouse on hand, Jeffrey believes that having her at FSU will not only benefit her but the entire diving squad. He sees that having a diver like Rittenhouse will make her teammates realize that she’s been there, done that and they can strive for that dream too. It certainly helped Jeffery when he was a diver at Ohio State and now he has the opportunity to coach a group just like it.
“Just her being here will do wonders for our team,” Jeffrey said. “By training with her, the team gets to watch her work ethic, dedication and how she balances everything.”
Rittenhouse comes to practice every day and sets the bar high for herself and the rest of her teammates, but more importantly she fits into the program. If you had to pick the Olympian out of the group, you’d have a tough time. Not only is Rittenhouse an exceptional athlete, she’s an even better teammate. During competition, she’s behind her teammates cheering them on and afterward she’s with the group just enjoying the atmosphere, which is something that Jeffery preaches to his athletes on a daily basis.
“I foster being a good teammate,” Jeffrey said. “Who’s going to be there for you when you’re up on the boards? Your family and your teammates, they’ll always have your back and those are the relationships that you’ll remember for the rest of your life.”
Before practice one day while waiting for the rain to clear out, Rittenhouse was sitting on the couch in the team’s lounge with some of her teammates and Jeffery, joking about Maroon 5’s song “Moves like Jagger.” They’re just a team that loves to compete, work hard and have a good time.
The Seminoles have some competition under their belts and Rittenhouse has shown her skills on the boards, recording three first places in four chances against a crop of talented divers from South Carolina, LSU, Alabama, Miami and Florida.
The next challenge for Rittenhouse will be this weekend when the Seminoles head to Christiansburg, Va. to take on Virginia Tech, Duke and UNC-Wilmington. This ACC battle will be a great chance for Rittenhouse to compete against some of the best divers in the conference as Duke stole the show at last year’s ACC Championships by winning all the diving events.
“At this point she needs to own it, “Jeffrey said. “She needs to enjoy it and continue to build on that solid foundation she’s set in order to take it a step further. I remember that point in my career and I know the best is yet to come for her.”
Rittenhouse is very focused on the collegiate season and that signature smile is back on her face. She’s setting goals to win NCAA’s and to contribute to her team, but she can’t suppress that feeling of what could be in store for her.