Collins Hill’s head swimming coach Jenny Weaver noticed a change in Peter Smithson at the first meet of the season.
Smithson finished third at state as a freshman and returned for his sophomore season with a presence.
“When he gets on the board, he owns it,” Weaver said. “He has swagger on the board.”
Smithson, the Daily Post’s Boys Diver of the Year, was at his best on the season’s biggest stage.
He dethroned two-time defending champion Parker Hardigree and soared past the 600-point mark to claim Georgia’s large classification title at Georgia Tech’s McAuley Aquatic Center.
What so impressed Weaver was the pause Smithson took before his 11th dive.
“He knew what being a state champ meant,” Weaver said. “I could see a senior doing that — it’s my last dive. But he appreciates everything. And let’s remember he’s a sophomore.”
Hardigree earned 9s on a beautiful penultimate dive and still trailed Smithson by 38 points. As Smithson balanced lightly at the end of the 1-meter springboard for the final round, he was a virtual lock for the title.
“I did take a second, just because I knew the stakes were high,” Smithson said. “I’ve gone against (Hardigree) at nationals and stuff like that. He’s always a competitor. He’s definitely amazing.
“It honestly could have gone either way. We’re always neck and neck. But with the experience I had from last year, I just took it one dive at a time and I knew I could end up ahead of him, if I wanted it that much.”
He ripped it for 64.80 points for a total of 613.45 points. Even a huge 75-point effort from Hardigree on his last dive wasn’t enough to catch Smithson. He finished 37.05 points back.
“Afterward, when my name was still up top, that was definitely a big moment,” Smithson said.
It put Jack Nyquist’s state record of 629.80 well within sight.
“It’s definitely in reach in the next two years,” Smithson said.
Smithson began diving five years ago, just a day or two a week with SpringDOGs, but the delight in flinging his body through the air predates even that early start.
“I had a trampoline when I was little,” he said. “I always liked that feeling of flipping.
“I got in trouble a lot doing flips off the side of the pool and stuff,” Smithson added with a laugh. “I also did gymnastics before diving. So I had that experience going into it.”
He says he didn’t know he’d be good at diving.
“I thought gymnastics would be my main thing,” said Smithson, who has won county two years in a row.
But he did win his first real diving meet.
“About 3 1/2 years ago in Hoover, Ala.,” Smithson said. “I ended up winning my first ever meet against people that were two or three years older than me. That was definitely a shock.”
He made nationals for the first time at 12 in what he called his first “good” meet.
Not long after that, Smithson gave up gymnastics and devoted himself fully to diving. He trains four, sometimes five, days a week in Athens with Jonathan Fennelly at the Georgia Diving Club.
In addition to being nationally ranked as an individual, and a state champion, Smithson does synchronized diving — in three different disciplines with three different partners. Two of them live out of state, making practices rare.
“Synchro is a lot of fun,” he said. “That’s fairly new. I did it three years ago, but with a brand-new partner. That went well. We won AAU nationals. We just walked up and tried it and ended up winning it.”
Synchronized diving nationals are coming up next month at Tech and Smithson plans to compete in 3-meter, 10-meter and platform.
“We just have to come up to the meet, do the warmup and hope it goes well,” Smithson said.
It has so far.
Smithson said there are pros and cons to both disciplines.
“It gives you more opportunities because colleges like it,” he said. “And Olympics, it gives you a lot better chance because you can try individual and synchro.
“I like synchro because you’re with someone and there’s more fun hanging out between each dive. But individual you can do your own thing.”
Having a little fun, even when diving individually, is new to Smithson.
“He learned that it was OK to have fun between dives with his friends and teammates, which helped him relax,” Weaver said. “He really came into his own.
“I don’t know where his top end is, and I don’t think you can predict it, but it’s going to be a fun two years.”
The dive that really won Smithson the Class 6/7A title, in the eighth round, was one he learned a week before the state meet. It was an inward 2 1/2 with a high 3.1 degree of difficulty.
He stood for much more than a moment, bouncing lightly. He threw it down for 74.40 points, pushing his lead over Hardigree from a scant four points to 24.
“So that went surprisingly well,” a smiling Smithson said in a slight understatement. “It’s definitely a good rush.
“I’m always a little nervous, no matter how much confidence I have because there are some really good divers. But I felt a lot better than last year.”