November 07, 2007

It's not often you hear about a diver who's afraid of heights. Then again, it's not often you hear about somebody like Chaparral (Paradise Valley, Ariz.) senior Shelby Cullinan, who has emerged as one of the nation's top high school divers after only three years in the sport.

Cullinan is a former gymnast who turned to diving after she tore the ACL in her left knee three years ago. Opting to forego surgery, she tried diving as an alternative -- but not without a little hesitation.

"I have a massive fear of heights," she says. "I guess you have to get over it; you're forced to do it. I think gymnastics helped me handle my fears, so it's a little easier at least."

But Cullinan has shown little fear when it comes to responding to the demands of high-pressure high diving. The defending Class 4A, Division I state champion and a favorite to repeat this season, Cullinan has made her new sport a passion. And she says it's actually less taxing than gymnastics.

"It's much easier on my body," she says. "And it's easier in general. Gymnastics was my passion, so it's kind of tough. But diving is still fun."

"She has a lot of talent," says Chaparral diving coach Sam Pelose. "She's definitely NCAA bound, and I can see her at least being a top-three diver throughout her NCAA career. I wouldn't be shocked if she made the Olympic team."

Making the Olympics would require all of Cullinan's talent and drive, but it would not be unprecedented. Her aunt, Cynthia Potter, made four U.S. Olympic diving teams from 1968-1980 (though she did not compete in 1980 because of the U.S. Olympic boycott against the Soviet Union), winning a bronze medal in 1976. Potter also won 28 national diving championships.

Cullinan's siblings are also top athletes. Her sister, Ryan, was also a diver at Chaparral, and her brother, Stevie, was on the University of Texas cycling team on a scholarship. The scholarship offers may soon be coming in for Shelby, as several colleges have already inquired about her diving abilities. Cullinan was looking at Southern California, UCLA, Cal and Texas as of press time. "I just want to go somewhere warm," she says. "Somewhere with a beach."

Cullinan's laid-back approach to her sport has long been a factor in her success. Though she trains very hard with her AAU team -- she worked out five days a week through the summer -- Cullinan still finds time to enjoy the high school experience. "Her work ethic is very focused but not one-dimensional," Pelose says. "She's very aware that she's in high school. She wants to go on trips and be with her friends, and she does a great job of balancing those requirements. She is the most bubbly person -- I don't think the girl is ever down. I don't think I've ever seen her not smile."

Sometimes that happy-go-lucky attitude works wonders during competition, where she has a knack for unnerving opponents with casual conversation. "She's really friendly with everyone, which I think makes her opponents grumpy," Pelose says.

It may also make her opponents upset to know that Cullinan's success has come in such a short period of time. After finishing third in Class 4A-I as a sophomore in 2005, Cullinan worked even harder to perfect her dives and acclimate herself to the sport.

The hard work paid off, as she beat the second-place finisher by 46 points en route to her first state title last season. Cullinan's score in the state finals last year (466.85) was better than that of any other diver in Class 4A or 5A. On the strength of her performance, the Firebirds finished second to Catalina Foothills in the team standings.

But as hard as Cullinan has worked at the high school level, it may be with her AAU team, the Sun Devil Divers, that she sees the best competition. This past summer, Cullinan competed in some of the nation's top amateur meets, from California to Florida. The year-round training has helped her fine-tune her dives and raise her degree of difficulty on many of them. "She's hungry -- she wants it," Sun Devil Divers coach Marc Briggs says. "Her work ethic is exceptional. If she's sick or tired or whatever, she still works her butt off. And she's always smiling, no matter how bad she feels. She's strong spirited, always rooting everybody else on."

Chaparral head coach Dave Hildebrandt doesn't deal much with Cullinan directly, as he focuses more on the swimmers. But he's well aware how important Cullinan is to the team. "She really delivers a lot of points for us," Hildebrandt says. "Swimmers do their thing and divers do their thing, but they're really integral to each other. When I get a chance to watch her compete, I'm just thrilled to see the skill that she possesses."

This fall, Cullinan doesn't have much more to prove. She's already established herself as the top diver in Arizona. Now she's poised to follow in her aunt's footsteps as one of the nation's top divers -- and she is only getting better. Most importantly, she's having fun. "I love just being there with my teammates," Cullinan says. "I enjoy going to practice every day. It's very laid back. It's just nice to get away from everything."

Even if it means confronting a fear of heights.

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