Story and video by Brandon Martinez
With grace and poise, Monica Marcello uses the momentum of the board to send her hurtling into the air and lands perfectly. The judges are impressed, as they give her a near perfect score. Marcello has been doing this for a long time, nine years to be exact, but she had to give it up before the effects of the sport damaged her body permanently.
Now 20-years-old, Marcello looks back on her days as a gymnast, with both pride and grief, as she stands there on the diving board. With the same grace and poise of the gymnast inside of her, Marcello uses the momentum of the diving board to send her straight up into the air, contorts her body in ways that the average person can’t, and finally hits the water. The splash is not well contained, so she isn’t too proud of her last dive, but she keeps practicing. After all, that’s what the University of Connecticut recruited her for.
Monica Marcello is a diver for the UConn Swimming and Diving team and has been on the team for three years now. She has won numerous awards, both colligate and high school, and has broken some high school records, as well.
Though Marcello excels at diving, it wasn’t her first choice of sport. Marcello’s first love was gymnastics.
When she was three-years-old, Marcello’s parents enrolled her into gymnastics classes, and she was a natural. Marcello had Olympic gymnast status inside of her, as she won competition after competition. However, all the excessive contortion, the running, and jumping took its toll on Marcello’s body.
“When I was in seventh grade, I herniated two discs in my lower back and that took me out for a year,” Marcello said. “The beginning of my freshman year (of high school), I was finally cleared. My back didn’t feel to great, but my spirits were high.”
Even though she was told she would never be able to compete again, Marcello returned with fire in her belly. However, her body could not recover fast enough from the previous injury. Due to Marcello’s premature return to gymnastics, her body broke down on her one more time.
“I returned a little quicker than I should have,” Marcello said. “I tore my ACL the day before the state competition, where I was actually seeded first.”
Marcello was once again sidelined, this time forcing her to give up a chance to add another possible award to her collection. Marcello was still not deterred. Marcello tried once more to return to her sport, but was welcomed back with a broken ankle.
“That completely took me out of gymnastics.” Marcello said. “I was without a sport, trying to heal my ankle and my knee.”
At 14-years-old, Marcello had to give up the only sport she had ever participated in, and the only sport she ever loved. She wasn’t sure she would be able to do any physical activities again, since the strain of gymnastics put irreversible damage on her body. She also wasn’t sure she even wanted to try another sport, because nothing could ever be the same as gymnastics was to her.
Marcello did not participate in any athletics for in her freshman and sophomore year of high school. She started gaining some weight since this was the first time in her life she had not been active. In order to get back into shape, and get her rehabilitate her back and ACL, Marcello entered physical therapy.
It was there that she would first be advised to try diving.
“ To cope without gymnastics, my physical therapist suggested diving to me,” Marcello said. “I did not want to go into diving because it’s what fat ex-gymnasts do.”
Marcello was hesitant, like a child on her first day of school, when she first started to dive. Her heart still longed for the beams and the vault, but after careful consideration, she decided to try her skills on the diving board. It was a frustrating transition for her, as she moved on from a sport she excelled in for her entire life and on to a sport she knew nothing about.
She hated being the newcomer. Trying to learn and excelling at a new sport was already behind her; she had done that in gymnastics. To take novice lessons, to buy a swimsuit and to be the newest member of a team was an experience, Marcello remembers, but not one she looks back on favorably.
“I didn’t love it,” Marcello said. “My heart was still in gymnastics.”
Even though her heart was lagging behind, Marcello excelled in diving. She received encouragement from family and friends about how well she performed and decided to join the Middletown High School Diving Team.
For two years, Marcello dived for her high school, improving and getting better with each practice, earning All-American honors for the sport. She didn’t love the sport and it would never replace gymnastics, but she was excelling and she was enjoying it. Marcello caught the eyes of many people who watched her dive, including her coaches, family, friends and teammates. However, the most important person who noticed Marcello, and her diving talent, was the University of Connecticut diving coach, John Bransfield.
Bransfield liked what he saw in Marcello and wanted to further improve her skills. When Marcello committed to UConn for diving and Bransfield learned about her and her background, he was up for the challenge of coaching her.
“I’m sure she has worked just in hard in her gymnastics as she has done with everything else in her life,” Bransfield said. “Whenever someone applies themselves with that intensity, trying to back up and make adjustments can be a little much.”
Bransfield knew that Marcello came up from a unique background, but he treated Marcello like any other diver he has coached. However, he has spent a little extra time with her and teaching her to slow down and let the diving board do most of the work for her, instead of doing the work herself like she did in gymnastics. Bransfield’s experience and dedication to Marcello has paid off, as she has won several meets for UConn. Bransfield said he has enjoyed coaching Marcello and loves watcher her improve even further.
“The most rewarding component for coaching her is watching her light up when she perfects a dive or her form,” Bransfield said. “When she realizes she has done something different, the response that she has to it is like watching a small child that just got a new toy.”
Marcello chose UConn and its diving program over other schools because she felt an intensity from Bransfield that no other coach had. For three years, Marcello has been under Bransfield’s wing and she has left a lasting impression on Bransfield as a coach.
“Monica is one of the hardest workers that I have ever coached, and I’ve coached at five schools and for 20 years,” Bransfield said. “For somebody that driven to be told that they are trying too hard is kind of a paradox and it is a hard pill to swallow.”
In and out of the pool, Marcello works hard. Being a full time student athlete and have to balance class work and your sport can be stressful. In order to deal with that stress, Marcello takes the short drive from campus to her apartment on Red Oak Hill in Wilmington, Connecticut. There, she takes to the oven and stove and dives into cooking, making quinoa, grilled chicken and different salads.
After the smoke from the stove has cleared the kitchen and the dishes have filled the sink, Marcello encloses herself in her room and meditates. With candles lit and soft music faintly in the background, Marcello goes into the tree pose, purging her mind and body from the stress of the day.
“Food is a huge part of my life and making sure I’m taking care of my body,” Marcello said. “Whether it’s cooking, meditation or yoga, I try and do things that will take care of my body mental, physically and spiritually.”
Marcello’s body has been through the ringer in her life, with two herniated discs, a torn ACL and a broken ankle, but she has persevered. A new sport has not only helped rehabilitated her body, but also gave her a new hobby, a new challenge. Marcello has many regrets about gymnastics, but it’s an experience she will hold forever.
Diving has is now apart of her identity, and it tells her tell of perseverance.