Jacob Butler only needed a week to see how special of an athlete he had in Brooke Connelly.
The Hinkley diving coach tested his divers from the beginning of practice with basic drills and Connelly — a former gymnast —immediately stood out.
The junior got beat up physically in gymnastics, but decided to trade it in for diving, where she would use similar skills. Though rough around the edges, Connelly oozed potential, especially after Butler found out about her work ethic and internal drive.
“After about a week, I pulled Brooke aside and told her that we were going kick things up for her to a level that would be more mentally straining,” Butler said.
“The learning curve is huge, transferring from gymnastics, where landing on your head will kill you to landing on your head in diving which is the safest way to avoid injury. Brooke would just not take no for an answer. …She has a fire and competitive spirit inside of her that just won’t let her quit.”
In just a couple of months, that package of athleticism and work ethic has helped Connelly take off. She qualified for the annual Coaches Invite prior to winter break — something that had never happened in the long tenure of Hinkley swim coach Beth Himes — broke a 24-year-old school record for six dives with her score of 215.10 points Jan. 22 and gives the program hopes of its first Class 5A state qualifier in more than two decades.
Connelly eclipsed the previous record of 200.60 set in 1991 by Laura Wallace and she came less than two points from setting a new school standard in an 11-dive meet with the 326.05 she recorded Jan. 16 at the Pueblo County Hornet Invite, which included one bad dive that hurt her score.
Needless to say, it’s been a tremendous start for Connelly, who gives Butler a lot of credit.
“I’ve never had a coach that had so much belief in me,” Connelly said. “I know the things he’s telling me are correct. …The biggest thing was working through fear instead of holding back from it. The jump itself was easy because of gymnastics, you just have to land in water instead of on the floor.”
Connelly excelled on the balance beam and floor exercise — in which she competed for Cherry Creek at the 2013 5A state gymnastics meet — but the physical toll mounted. She said she’d suffered a variety of maladies from a neck injury to a concussion and tendinitis.
Diving has been less physically taxing for Connelly, who is also a cheerleader and soccer player.
The transition from gymnastics to diving has been successful for a number of Aurora athletes in the past, most notably Eaglecrest’s Aubrey Bush in the 2007-08 season. Bush took up diving as a senior and placed fourth at the state meet in an incredible one season transformation.
Connelly is still a work in progress, but she’s soaking in every experience, even the frustrating ones such as the Coaches Invite.
Registering a score of just 83 points, Connelly didn’t advance to the championship round, but still felt it pushed her forward as she was around most of the state’s best in a very competitive atmosphere.
“It didn’t go well, but I was still learning,” Connelly said. “It was pretty early in the season and I was just getting some new dives, but my coach was comfortable with the dives he was putting in. They were gymnast dives, so it was a good experience. Plus I learned another dive there from a coach that was helping out.”
Butler is glad Connelly came to diving as a junior and not a senior and is looking forward to what she could accomplish in the coming weeks as well as the next year.
To become the first Hinkley diver to make the 5A girls state meet for the first time since the 1990s, Connelly needs a score of 335 points or more at an 11-dive meet with a 12.2 degree of difficult. She’ll have opportunities on Feb. 3 and Feb. 4 at last chance meets at Cherry Creek and Denver North, plus the EMAC Championships Feb. 6-7 at Adams City.
“It would mean a lot to me and my school and my family,” Connelly said.
On top of all her athletics, Connelly is enrolled in Hinkley’s International Baccalaureate program and is part of the Aurora Police Explorers Academy — in which she learns the basic of being a police officer — forced her to miss the Aurora Public Schools Championship meet Jan. 30-31.
It meant missing a chance to dive against budding rival Jessica Mitchell, a junior at Gateway, but the two should have a head-to-head contest coming at the EMAC Championship meet.
Connelly finished half a point ahead of Mitchell when the Thunderbirds and Olys met in a dual meet before winter break.
Without Connelly in the field, Mitchell scored 340.55 points to win a third straight APS diving championship and qualify for the Feb. 13-14 5A state meet at the Edora Pool & Ice Center in Fort Collins for the first time.
AURORA’S CLASS 5A STATE QUALIFIED DIVERS
McKensi Austin, Regis Jesuit, jr. (defending 5A state champion)
Isobel Griffin, Grandview, jr.
Anne Marie Kenny, Regis Jesuit, fr.
Jessica Mitchell, Gateway, jr.
Kellyn Toole, Regis Jesuit, sr.
Indiya Williams, Eaglecrest, sr.
Courtney Oakes is Sports Editor of the Aurora Sentinel. Reach him at 303-750-7555 or [email protected] Twitter: @aurorasports. FB: Aurora Prep Sentinel