Patriot divers address loss, find their way

Dave Weatherwax/The Herald
Heritage Hills’ Morgan Schum won her fourth straight diving sectional title and broke the sectional record last weekend, leading a 1-2-3 sectional finish by Patriot divers. The group has bounced back emotionally after Gary Ayer Sr., the team’s diving coach, died Nov. 28.

Herald Sports Writer

To simplify, the story goes like this: Heritage Hills’ girls divers are having the greatest season in team history.

The trio of Morgan Schum, Mariah Burdin and Haley Pierson swept first, second and third place, respectively, at the Pocket Athletic Conference meet Jan. 19 — the first a Patriot girls team accomplished the feat. Schum’s score of 422.95 set a conference record. Two weeks later, the run continued at sectional. Schum, Emily Kern and Burdin claimed the top three spots, with Schum’s 431.5 eclipsing the sectional record that had gone untouched for almost two decades. It was the first time in program history that more than one Patriot advanced to regional.

To boot, Schum then grabbed second place at regional, solidifying her spot at the girls swimming and diving state finals, slated to begin Friday at the IUPUI Natatorium in Indianapolis. She’ll be joined by Jasper’s three relay teams, including Addison Nolan, Alissa Haas and Payton Painter, who all won individual events at Saturday’s sectional, as well as Sydney Barrett and Taylor Miles of Southridge.

The Patriots’ records are remarkable, yet hardly scratch the story’s surface.

The past two months have been a trial, extending beyond the tuning of aerial rotations and minimizing of splash. And traveling down this path with the five Patriot divers has been diving coach Gary Ayer Jr., the son of the late Gary Ayer Sr., Heritage Hills’ longtime diving coach. When Gary Sr. died Nov. 28, it left a team and a son in a pool of despair.

Revisiting the classroom

When he volunteered to coach Heritage Hills divers beginning in the winter of 1983, Gary Ayer Sr. constantly picked the brains of opposing coaches — and divers — to gain insight. With no competitive diving experience, he was constantly absorbing knowledge from wherever and whomever he could.

Yet as intensely driven as Gary Sr. was to consume the know-how, his demeanor around his divers was contrastively unwound, blending enthusiasm with patience until he retired from coaching in 2001.

After 14 seasons of coaching Patriot swimmers, Gary Jr. also retired. Or so he thought.

Persuaded by his wife, Gary Jr. rejoined the team in 2006 as the diving coach alongside swim coach Angie Spinner, a former swimmer of his. Peering at the bevy of diving talent brewing at the middle school level, Gary Jr. did what he thought was best: He contacted his father.

What started as dad handing out tips turned into him showing up for practices to work with divers. Little by little, Gary Sr. was back at the pool more and more.

“I said (to my dad), ”˜If you don’t mind, I could use a little help with some of these middle school kids,” Gary Jr. recalls.

Schum, now a senior and four-time sectional champion, headlined that list of middle school prospects.

“When Morgan was an eighth-grader, dad basically took over the diving again,” Gary Jr. says.

Not teammates, but family

Pierson remembers Gary Sr. arriving at practices last year before any swimmer and staying until each departed, dishing out words of encouragement as they left.

That’s just who he was: a man with a knack for reading the psyche of his divers, they all agree. To get a stubborn Pierson to attempt new dives, he often pestered her to try until she grudgingly made an attempt. Mission: wittily accomplished.

With Schum, the former coach had the ability to provide calm through reassuring remarks — a mental facet that Schum struggled with in past years.

“That’s what made him such a good coach,” Pierson says. “He knew how to handle you mentally.”

As Gary Jr. looks back at the divers’ progression, he underlines that exact component — the mental edge.

“Just the improvements that they’ve made, not only with their diving ability but the mental aspect with it. This group of five girls that we have right now, they’re a family. I mean, they’re not teammates,” Gary Jr. says. “They get more excited watching their teammates do good than they do about their own dives sometimes.”

But this year was different.

After doctors discovered a few cancer cells in some extracted lymph nodes last summer, Gary Sr. began chemotherapy and radiation treatment soon after. Yet the radiation burned his lungs to the point his body wasn’t responding to steroid treatment the way doctors anticipated. Then came an infection and trouble with blood pressure.

As October aged into November, Gary Sr.’s presence at the pool began to dwindle. What started as three practices a week for him turned to two, which eventually faded to one. The poolside absence was harder to ignore as Gary Sr.’s health deteriorated.

“I remember, every day, just wondering if he was going to show up that day or not,” Pierson says.

About two weeks after sending each diver a card from the hospital before the Mount Vernon Relays, Gary Sr. died. The funeral was held on a Saturday and the team competed against Evansville Reitz two days later.

“We were all just kind of lost. We didn’t know how it was going to be. We were just used to coming in and seeing him in the same spot every day,” Schum says. “We would just look over and he wasn’t there.”

Slowly, surely, back

Remarkably, Gary Jr. coins that Reitz meet as the “best meet they had all year.” But what followed was a monthlong low. As his divers remember, the loss was palpable.

“Practices were tough. We were all kind of just silent. And we’re never silent. Ever. And before meets we’re never silent. And we were definitely just really somber before meets,” says Schum, who questioned whether she even wanted to finish the season. “We just stared. And it wasn’t fun.”

By New Year’s, the atmosphere began to change. It was by no means a sudden change, but a slow process that eventually led to more “constructive practices,” Gary Jr. says, and even more jokes and laughter.

Soon enough, the group was firing again. First came senior night against Northeast Dubois, where Morgan “put on a show,” Gary Jr. recalls, and left a clear message in the coach’s mind: “We’re back.”

“And after that, it’s been pretty good,” Gary Jr. says with a playful grin.

Three days later came the conference meet, jump-starting the Patriots’ three-week stretch of exceptional results. For the coach, the results speak to more than mere talent.

“It’s a testament to the character of these girls. The dedication that they had, not only to the sport, but the love they had for my dad,” says Gary Jr., his voice unsteady.

What permitted the group’s charge was an uncommon mindset, which displayed itself in more ways than one. Coupled with the loss of a coach, the team members had to accept not diving at every meet, given their depth. When Gary Jr. chose Pierson to dive at the conference meet and the senior Kern at sectional, while Trinity DeWitt, another capable junior, was left out, all swimmers accepted the decision with understanding.

With Schum, Gary Jr. knows he has a possible once-in-a-lifetime diver. Now, she writes the final chapter of this team’s journey from tragedy to triumph in Indianapolis.

“They earned what they did,” Gary Jr. says. “To this point, it couldn’t have been scripted any better.”

Contact Joe Jasinski at

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