By CAMIRAN MOORE, UK Athletics
On the morning of Thursday, December 13, 2018, then-junior Emma Dellmore attended a private training at the Lancaster Aquatic Center. Emma is a diver for the University of Kentucky, and she and her teammates were making final preparations to train and take final exams before heading home for a short, but worth-it, winter break.
It was finals week, so divers had the privilege of scheduling individual training shifts with head diving coach Ted Hautau that fit within each student-athlete’s exam schedule.
Preparing for her final practice of the year, Emma arrived at the pool around 8 a.m. ET. She made plans to warmup for 15 minutes and train for 45 minutes on dryland that morning, leaving ample time to brush up for a 10 a.m. final exam and before traveling home to The Woodlands, Texas, for winter break. Emma’s private practice was winding down, and she wanted to throw just one more flip off the dryland practice board before moving on with her day.
Performing the motions for a back tuck, Emma’s knees unexpectedly buckled on her way up and back forcing her to aimlessly land in a narrow, concrete space between the practice board and the landing mat (a space that, arguably, only she could fit in the most freak circumstance, given her petite size).
Emma immediately cried out in pain after she fell to the concrete. Stunned by the “excruciating pain” from landing feet first on the concrete surface after flipping more than 10 feet in the air, Emma “was in complete shock” and couldn’t stand up.
The pool was desolate at the time, while just head diving coach Ted Hautau and athletic trainer Amy Barchek were on the pool deck. Coach Hautau ran to Emma, picked her up and placed her on the landing mat next to the practice board as Emma repeated, “It hurts, it hurts.”
With little time to react, Amy rushed Emma to the UK Orthopaedic Surgery and Sports Medicine Clinic less than a mile down the road. Emma soon found out that she had bilateral calcaneal fractures on both her right and left heels (i.e., a break of the right and left heel bones).
Just two months before the 2019 SEC Championships and three months before the 2019 NCAA Championships, then-junior Emma was sitting in a room learning that she would receive bilateral short leg casts and be confined to a wheelchair for more than three months – not to mention a long and challenging rehabilitation process that was to follow.
Emma watched as the doctor immediately placed her into bilateral casts before helping her into a wheelchair, not fully understanding how her future would be impacted – let alone, her diving career.
Quickly reminding herself that she is a student-athlete, Emma insisted that she take her 10 a.m. final exam in an environmental health class. “I had already studied the night before,” Emma kidded. Her teammate Caroline McCleary rolled her into class less than two hours after a freak accident that would flip her world upside down.
Her alarm clock would go off each morning around 6 a.m., and she’d wrestle with the question, “Can I keep doing this?”
Each morning, Emma had two options – do the bare minimum on little-to-no hope of returning to the sport she adored, or rather, live off the hope of returning to the diving board for her final season.
She chose the latter.
Emma didn’t just follow a Division I Southeastern Conference student-athlete schedule – she did so with her legs casted and in a wheelchair. Each morning when she woke up, she would crawl on the floor to open her dresser and get dressed, lift herself into her wheelchair, navigate the narrow halls of her residence, make meals, attend two practices a day, go to class, be present at tutor sessions, attend workouts, go to healthcare appointments, and whatever else life brought her.
How was she an inspiration to others? She showed up. Hence, she led by example.
Even as she watched her calves shrink smaller in her casts because she was losing muscle, even when she had to wake up 45 minutes earlier than normal because of her limited mobility, even when her body ached and it persuaded her to give up, even when she had to continually ask for help…. Emma was always present.
Simple tasks like reaching for the faucet, grabbing a glass from the cabinet, throwing a meal in the microwave, navigating a classroom, being on time, performing minor drills from the sideline as she watched her teammates practice, etc., all became a burden, and even more so in the gloomy months of winter.
For Emma, it was a mindset barrier more than anything, and every day it was her goal to overcome the unavoidable negative self-talk. Rather, she constantly told herself, “I can do this, keep going, I can do this.”
Simple words can make a big difference… and they did. After three months in bilateral casts and a wheelchair and two months in bilateral walking boots and a scooter, Emma was cleared for full activity at five months post injury.
Perhaps the most influential takeaway from Emma’s story is that of her determination. During her semester of recovery (Spring 2019) and her first semester back to competition (Fall 2019), she earned a pair of 4.0 GPA semesters in public health – the only 4.0 GPA semesters she had recorded until that point. Meanwhile, Emma still attended every single practice, watching from the sideline.
No give up, no quit.
Even a year later, Emma is using her unique experience to help guide her through a future career in public health. This fall, Emma will be attending the Milwaukee School of Engineering nursing program where she will focus on pediatric nursing and how she can help children overcome similar adversities.
Emma spent five months without ever throwing a dive (December 2018 – May 2019), and she spent 12 months without competitive diving (November 2018 – October 2019). Once Emma returned to competition, here is a glimpse of her final year as a collegiate diver:
First Meet Back (October 9, 2019)
Emma first returned to competition on October 9, 2019, for a home tri-meet against No. 9 Indiana and No. 16 Notre Dame. Competing against a pair of the top diving programs in the nation, Emma earned third place on the 1-meter springboard (a 14-person field) and fifth place on the 3-meter springboard (a 13-person field). From then on, Emma competed in every springboard competition for the rest of the season.
Senior Night (January 31, 2020)
On senior night, Emma posted the second-best score on the 3-meter springboard she has ever recorded, collecting 310.58 points to earn first place in the nine-person field.
2020 SEC Championships (February 18-22, 2020)
On the first night of the 2020 SEC Championships, Emma competed on the 1-meter springboard. At the conference championships, divers compete six dives in the preliminary competition, and the top-eight divers advance to the finals competition to compete another six dives. For the first time in her career, Emma advanced to the finals competition after finishing fifth overall in the preliminary field (a 32-person field), posting the second-best score she has ever recorded with 293.90 points. In the finals competition, Emma earned 266.10 points to finish eighth overall in the conference, an exceptional achievement for anyone, much less someone that is less than one year removed from relearning to walk.
NCAA Zone “C” Diving Championships (March 12-14, 2020)
The Zone Diving Championships is the one opportunity divers have to qualify for predetermined spots at the NCAA Championships. The United States is sectioned into five zones, and UK is in Zone C, which includes Division I programs from Kentucky, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Ohio. Emma qualified for “zones” on both the 1- and 3-meter springboard this season. Similar to the conference championships, divers compete six dives in the preliminary competition, but the top-18 divers advance to the finals competition to compete another six dives. From there, a predetermined number of divers will qualify for the NCAA Championships.
On Thursday, March 12, 2020, Emma competed on the 1-meter springboard, and she earned her best finish ever at the meet, placing 13th in the 57-person field. Moving on to the finals competition and one step closer to her first NCAA Championships, Emma only had the opportunity to compete two of her six dives before the meet was abruptly cut short due to the COVID-19 public health threat. However, after only competing two of her six dives during the finals competition, Emma had already improved two spots, ultimately finishing the competition in 11th place. Emma said her performances on that day are the most rewarding of her career, and it just so happened to be the last of her career.