Nov. 19, 2009
By Larry Watts
Ashley Karnes should have been feeling like the best was yet to come.
As the women's swimming and diving campaign drew to a close late last winter, the Purdue University junior diver had just pulled off one of the biggest upsets in conference history, knocking off Olympian Christina Loukas of Indiana on the one-meter board. Not only did she defeat Loukas, a three-time Big Ten champion on the one-meter board, but Indiana's Brittney Feldman, who won the title in 2008 when Loukas was training for the Olympics, was also in the field.
Karnes went on to take second to Loukas on the three-meter board with her second Purdue school record and then added a fourth on the one-meter and seventh on the three-meter boards to her resume at the NCAA Championships. With a Big Ten title and two All-American awards, Karnes should have been at her peak in confidence for her final year of competition for the Boilermakers.
But the Bloomington, Ind. native was thinking about calling it quits.
"I had been diving since I was 12, but all of a sudden toward the end of the season I had developed this fear I couldn't do it," she says. "It was a real mental block. I couldn't see myself flipping through the air. It was an irrational fear and I couldn't get myself out of it.
"It happened all of a sudden one day at practice when I was asked to do a simple back dive. I just froze and didn't know how to do it. I know some divers in the country who have gone through this and it's unexplainable to people who have never experienced it, but I don't know of anyone who has ever experienced it to this extent.
"I had been dealing with this anxiety all year and just kept brushing it off," she added. "All of a sudden, there was this huge explosion. The funny part is I had never hurt myself in diving, so that's why this was so irrational."
And distracting. It got to the point Karnes' teammates, who didn't understand what she was going through, were becoming frustrated with her because she kept holding up practices.
"I was slowing down their practices and I was not a fun person to be around in the pool," she says. "They kept telling me to go and I couldn't. I thought this only happened in the movies.
"I was the diver before who would do anything anyone asked and I would have been the first to tell someone else they were insane. I had to go or get out of practice. When my teammates finally realized this was an issue, not just a normal day at the pool, they became very supportive and encouraging."
By the time she got to the NCAA Championships, Karnes barely warmed up on the one-meter board and did not do warmups on the three-meter.
"That's how hard of a time I was having in practice," she says. "I was crying every day and I was crying before I competed at the NCAA Championships. I even asked Adam (Purdue diving coach Adam Soldati) if I had to compete. He told me it was up to me, but this wasn't about me, it was for the team."
After several long talks with Soldati, Karnes decided the best treatment would be to take a month break from the pool. It was during this time she received an invitation to compete for the United States on the one-meter board at the World University Games in Belgrade, Serbia this past summer. It was her first calling to an international competition.
"My goal during the previous year had been to make the squad, but when all this happened during the school year, it was no longer in the forefront of my mind," she says. "All of a sudden I started feeling better about myself again. It was an awesome honor to be selected and it was even better that I came home with the bronze medal. It was such a big change for me; I no longer wanted to quit. From all those things I had done, I knew I could contend with the best in the U.S."
Now that she has had time for everything to sink in, Karnes is now able to look back on the past season in a more positive light, especially her first win over Loukas at the Big Ten Championships.
"That win gave me confidence I could contend with her," she says. "Christina has received the most notice in our sport and it is well-deserved. She's been to the Olympics and so many international competitions. Some people make it to the Olympics and that's it, but she continues to do well.
"Winning was a goal of mine, but I'm not sure I really believed it was realistic. Before the competition, you try to make yourself believe it is realistic; otherwise you're not going to win. But after it was over, I thought, 'Wow, I actually did it."'
With all she went through mentally last year, Karnes says she never lost the fire for competition. "Maybe that's why I struggled so much," she says. "It all just became a little too much for me. I'm hard on myself and I have high expectations. I think I have a lot of talent and Adam kept telling me I'm capable of doing these things, but it was so frustrating not to do the dives because I was afraid of them. I just couldn't figure out how to get through the stress."
But the 5-foot-3 senior is hitting the board with a heavy heart these days. One week into Purdue's season, her father, Greg, died of a sudden heart attack at the age of 56.
"We were very close and it's been very rough on me because he was my No. 1 fan," she says while fighting to control her emotions. "He believed in me more than I believed in myself."
At this point, Karnes has switched to dietetics in her studies but also says she may turn to nursing.
"Dietetics requires an internship, which is like a full-time job, and I wouldn't be able to dive," she says. "I'm still young and my dream is diving and I don't want to split my life so much that I don't get what I need to get done in diving.
"At this point, I'm still taking things one year at a time. I plan to go to grad school, get a part-time job and continue to work with Adam. I would love to make it to the Olympics. I'm not sure that will be a reality, but it could be if I continue to work hard."
Karnes says the transformation from being in high school to becoming a young woman competing in athletics has been a huge challenge.
"I'm not sure I can really explain it," she says. "You come in here as a freshman and all you know is what you have done in high school and you can't imagine it would that much harder even though people keep telling you how tough and challenging it is.
"This becomes so much a bigger part of your life because you're doing two practices a day, lifting weights and going to classes. But you learn to adjust and love it. It forces you to grow and I'm so thankful to be in this position to get this experience because there are so many people in life who don't have this opportunity. It makes you prioritize and figure out what you really care about, what your passions are and how to reach your goals."