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Diver Marsh Makes a Big Splash : Preps: She is one of four women who will represent the United States in an international meet in Germany.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When Sarah Marsh turned 9, she didn’t ask her parents for dolls or toys. She wanted diving lessons.

Although barely able to climb up the diving board ladder, Marsh bravely took jump after jump into the pool. A month later, she entered her first competition.

“When I was younger, I wasn’t fearful of heights or anything,” said Marsh, now 18 and two weeks away from graduating from Palos Verdes High. “I felt I was indestructible then. I didn’t have any fears. I just loved diving into the pool. Who would have ever thought the sport would take me this far?”

Nine years later, Marsh is an accomplished diver. She is one of four women who will represent the United States in the Grezlandspringen (Germany) Youth and Diving International Championships June 11-20. More than 14 countries are expected to compete in the event that annually draws the top talent in Europe. Marsh earned her spot on the team after finishing second among divers 18 and under at the Senior Indoor Nationals in Portland, Ore., in April.

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Marsh returns from Germany a day before her graduation, giving her little time to reflect on one of the most successful prep diving careers in California history.

As the only diver at Palos Verdes, Marsh won four CIF Southern Section championships. She holds records for most points in the 2-A (460 points) and 3-A (498) divisions. The section record is 542.5 points set by Wendy Wyland of Mission Viejo in 4-A in 1984.

“That record really isn’t too far out of my reach,” Marsh said. “If I had received a little tougher competition, I think I could have broken it.”

Rarely challenged on the high school level, the energetic Marsh turned to club teams for increased training and competition. After learning the fundamentals as a youngster at pool near the family’s Palos Verdes Estates’ home, Marsh transferred to several other area clubs before joining the well-established Mission Viejo Natadores five years ago.

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The Natadores, for whom Olympic gold medalist Janet Evans swam, have one of the most developed diving programs in the country. Marsh’s coach, Janet Ely, is a two-time Olympian and former world champion. Wendy Williams, one of Marsh’s teammates, won a bronze medal in the 1988 Olympics.

“If Sarah decides to devote herself full time to this sport, I think she has the capabilities of going to the Olympics,” Ely said. “She’s got the tools and desires.

“Sarah takes everything she does very seriously. When she gets into something, it’s 110%. She knows how to focus on something, and she keeps her coaches on a busy pace.”

Every day after school and on Saturdays, Marsh drives 65 miles to the Mission Viejo Recreation Center, home of the Natadores. She practices for three hours, and follows that up three times a week with a dance class designed to build strength, grace and flexibility.

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In between school and practice, she squeezes in homework, sleep and social functions. The latter receives the least time. There are no regrets, however, and Marsh said she couldn’t imagine her life without diving.

“Diving has taught me a lot about life and making commitments,” she said. “I’ve also learned how to show respect for my coaches. I’ve traveled all over the United States. And I’ve been able to make a career out of the sport.”

The 5-foot-4, 120-pound Marsh will attend Southern Methodist University on a partial scholarship this fall. She was recruited by a dozen of the top swimming schools in the country, and chose SMU over USC. Marsh, generally considered one of the top two or three junior-level divers in the country, is a two-time All-American as selected by the National Interscholastic Swimming Coaches of America.

The Palos Verdes senior doesn’t know how far she’ll take her diving career. Although she has an outside chance at representing the United States in the ’92 Olympics, making the ’96 Games is a more reasonable goal. Marsh isn’t sure if she has the desire to wait that long. She knows she doesn’t want to be a professional diver or a coach.

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“I know there’s a point in my life where I’ll have to get on with it and get a job,” she said. “Right now I love diving. If I miss a few days of practice, everyone steers clear of me because I get so angry.

“This sports takes a big commitment, though. You literally have to train almost every day of the year.”

Before starting diving lessons, Marsh played club soccer. She renewed her interest in the sport at Palos Verdes, where she was a starting left wing on the varsity as a freshman and sophomore. While playing soccer, she also ran on the cross-country team to keep in top shape. She dropped the sports in her junior year to devote more time to diving.

In high school competition, Marsh dominated the Southern Section. Her only loss was at the Bay League championship her sophomore season. She won the section’s 3-A Division titles in 1987, ’89 and ’90. The Sea Kings competed in 2-A in ’88, and she won the title and set her first section record.

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Marsh has been nominated for female athlete of the year at Palos Verdes, and the winner will be announced at an award’s banquet tonight.

High school meets are limited to competition on 1- and 3-meter springboards. Marsh prefers the 10-meter platform, which is an event on the club level. Her favorite dive is the reverse 2 1/2, which she said requires difficult mental preparation.

“To be the best you can be, you’ve got to give it all you got,” Marsh said. “At 10 meters in the air you can get scared to death. There are times when you might hurt yourself. You just have to concentrate on what you’re doing and not take anything for granted.”

Last summer, Marsh finished fifth in platform at the Junior Nationals in Houston in the 16-18 age group. She will compete in the same meet this summer in Tempe, Ariz.

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In her final year of junior national competition, Marsh has begun to concentrate more on the senior national level. Senior national meets are open to amateur participants of all ages and also serve as qualifying for the Olympic trials.

Marsh qualified for her first senior national meet two years ago, and at 16 was among the youngest participants. Her highest finish on the senior level was at April’s indoor meet in Portland, where she placed 14th and was selected to compete at the Olympic Sports Festival in Minneapolis in July. She will participate in the senior outdoor national meet in Dallas in August.

“Sarah is very talented and hard working,” said Natadore teammate Williams, a favorite to make the ’92 Olympic team. “She loves diving and is very dedicated. She’s among the best divers in the country for her age, and certainly appears to be a future Olympian.”

Most agree, including Marsh, that making the ’92 Olympic team is a long shot. In ’96, she’ll be 24. Six more years of diving, however, will require a bigger commitment.

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Marsh’s parents, Tom and Aggie Marsh, have been supportive. Tom is the chairman of the Southern Pacific Assn. of U.S. Diving, the governing body of the sport. Aggie volunteers her time to help at meets and accompanies Sarah to practice several times each week.

At SMU, Marsh will be competing for one of the top diving programs and coaches--Jim Stillson--in the nation.

“I certainly have room for improvement,” Marsh said. “I’m no where near my peak.”


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