She knew. They all knew. At that point, Emma Dellmore and every other diver on opening day at the NCAA Zone C Championships understood. The end was near. The competition would not finish as a precaution against the growing coronavirus crisis. The only question seemed to be when.
Just the night before, the NCAA had announced it would limit attendance at UK's Lancaster Aquatic Center in Lexington. Each Kentucky diver was allowed to have one family member there. Because teammates were thoughtfully swapping spots to coincide with their events, both of Dellmore's parents were able to be in the building for the women's 1-meter springboard on Thursday March 12th.
After making it through the prelims, as the Kentucky senior readied for her second-round dive in the finals, teammate Kyndal Knight offered this encouragement: "Make this the best dive you've ever done in your entire life. Rip it. Just know, no matter what happens, you should be proud of yourself." Her coach, Ted Hautau, offered nothing more than his regular correction after the previous dive to keep her in the moment.
Dellmore tried to focus on her routine but couldn't escape "a weird feeling" on the board. One thought unique to the moment slipped in. "If this is my last dive, it's the last dive of my career."
And so it was. On the final dive of a career marked by injury and recovery, setback and comeback, a career cut short on two different occasions for two very different reasons, she did the dive. She hit the water without a splash and returned to the surface to see fist pumps and hear cheers. As her teammate had encouraged her to do, she said, "I ripped it."
A year earlier, it was hard to imagine Emma Dellmore competing in the finals at the 2020 NCAA Zone Championships. Competing at all would be enough of a challenge. Last spring, she was in boots on both feet and on crutches. She was enduring painful rehabilitation after breaking both heels during the last rep of dry-land exercises in December of 2018. When her knees buckled on that last rep and she hit the concrete instead of the mat, "I was in complete shock. It was excruciating pain. I couldn't even stand up."
They rushed her to a doctor, who delivered the news after examination and X-rays. Bilateral calcaneal fractures were the result of a freak injury that would require surgery on both feet, casts and the use of a wheelchair for months. Dellmore didn't simply have to learn how to dive again. First, she would have to learn how to walk again.
"I was in complete shock" at the news, she said. "I thought, 'Everything I've ever worked for is over.' "
That was a fleeting if natural moment of despair. It wouldn't take long for the competitive spirit of the young woman who'd finished in the top 15 in both springboard events at the 2018 SEC Championships, who was named UK's Most Improved Diver that season as a sophomore, kicked in.
After all, on the December 2018 morning when she suffered the injuries, she had an exam scheduled in an environmental health class. After going to the doctor and getting the bad news, she insisted on going to class and taking the exam. A teammate rolled her into the classroom in a wheelchair.
"I had already studied the night before," Dellmore explained. "I did very well on the exam."
No surprise given since she'd made the SEC First-Year Academic Honor Roll and the SEC Winter Academic Honor Roll, but an inspiration considering the trauma she'd experienced about 90 minutes before.
There were times during her rehab when she felt like she couldn't continue, "many moments in my wheelchair I would stop and say, 'I don't want to do this anymore. Why did this happen to me?' I had to switch my mind." It helped that her family, friends and teammates were always there. In particular, her friend and Kentucky diving teammate Cara Hudson and her boyfriend, UK golfer Matt Liston, would load her wheelchair in the car and drive to her and from rehab sessions and practice. Yes, practice. She had attended practice the afternoon of her injury after that final exam. Why would she stop?
"My whole motivation was, 'I still have a whole entire year left,' " Dellmore said. "That's what kept me going."
She progressed from casts to boots and crutches, from wheelchair to scooter, from barely being able to walk to diving again. By the end of April 2019, she said, "I was walking but couldn't jump." By the middle of July, "I had my full list of dives back."
She came back to enjoy a special senior season. At this year's SEC Championships, she scored a career-best in the 1-meter springboard in the prelims and reached the finals for the first time, finishing eighth overall. Her final college competition would be cut short, but being one of 18 divers to reach the finals out of 61 competitors meant the world.
"Probably the best moment was making the finals at NCAA Zones," she said. "It was the best feeling, knowing I had made it and I was there. I was able to accomplish all I had ever expected of myself. I was able to be a part of one of the best teams Kentucky swimming and diving has ever had."
Dellmore will graduate next month with her degree in Public Health. She plans to join the nursing program at the Milwaukee School of Engineering in the fall, with a goal to focus on pediatric nursing. Her diving career may be done, but she's only just begun serving as an inspiration to others.