Nov. 26, 2003
By Michael Naughton
The biggest challenge for any athlete is not competing at the top of his or her game. It can be even more difficult when that athlete is a former champion who has suffered a debilitating back injury.
Notre Dame senior diver Meghan Perry-Eaton understands those challenges first-hand as she has faced her fair share of obstacles while spinning and twisting off the board for the Irish. But like most champions, Perry-Eaton is diving right through the injuries and into the Notre Dame record books.
The senior diver has already established herself as one of the most prolific divers in school history. She holds three of the four Notre Dame diving records – the one-meter six dives and both three-meter events. Her records and accomplishments at Notre Dame are very admirable, but ultimately her ability to bounce back from injury could be what separates her from the rest.
Her journey towards the Notre Dame record books started in her hometown of Brandon, Fla., just outside of Tampa. Originally, Perry-Eaton excelled as a swimmer and had no thoughts of diving. At age 13, however, Perry-Eaton began the transition into one of the country’s best divers.
“I was burnt out from swimming,” Perry-Eaton says.
“I started diving just for fun at practice and then I really got serious.”
The biggest challenge early in her career was not landing dives, but having her parents to allow her dive.
“It was hard to convince my folks to let me dive and my parents made many sacrifices so that I could begin diving at a higher level.”
Once convinced, the family moved even closer to the pool where Perry-Eaton trained in order to make the twice-daily drives across town a little more tolerable. The training and sacrifices paid off quickly as she qualified for the Junior Outdoor Nationals after just one year of diving.
Her diving success continued in high school where she was a four-time all-state member in diving and a two-time all-conference swimmer as well. Before starting her career at Notre Dame, she had already qualified for the United States National meet and had been nationally ranked since her sophomore year.
She was recruited by the top diving programs in the country and eventually chose Notre Dame over traditional diving power Southern California.
“There is just something about Notre Dame and I wanted to be apart of that,” Perry-Eaton says.
The highly-touted freshman was eager to dive into collegiate competition and looked poised to be one of the top divers in the BIG EAST. However her dreams were abruptly sidelined early in the season due to a serious back injury suffered while training.
With bulging discs in her lower back and fractures in her spine, she initially tried to dive through the pain. The pain, however, was overwhelming to the point where she had trouble walking and her career was put on hold before it could even get started.
“My freshman year was horrible. I was so excited about coming here to dive and then it all stopped,” Perry-Eaton says.
Back injuries can be the end to a diver’s career and the Notre Dame doctors prepared her for that possibility. Unyielding though, Perry-Eaton began to rehabilitate her ailing back as soon as it was physically possible. Her goal was not only to dive again, but also to dive in her sophomore season.
Remarkably, she was able to come back in 2002 and made an immediate impact on the board. She narrowly missed qualifying for the NCAA Championships, after earning all-BIG EAST honors placing second on the one-meter board and a third on the three-meter event at the conference meet.
She also set the Notre Dame record on the three-meter board for six dives (333.82). All records and honors aside, Perry-Eaton was happy to be diving again, but was looking for more.
Her return came full circle a year ago in a breakout season where Perry-Eaton saw her hours of dry-land work, gymnastics, rehabilitation and constant visualization and focus on returning to full strength paid dividends.
Her junior year she did not lose a dual meet on the one-meter board and set three school records. She continued her success at the BIG EAST Championships where she finished first on the one-meter board and second on the three-meter board. She made history by breaking the University of Miami stranglehold in the diving events at the conference meet when she won the one-meter competition. She also became the first diver in Notre Dame history to win an individual diving event at the BIG EAST meet.
The awards kept coming for Perry-Eaton as she was named the 2003 BIG EAST Diver of the Year, becoming the first Notre Dame diver to earn the honor. Later at the NCAA championships, she finished ninth on the one-meter board earning honorable mention All-America honors, becoming only the second Notre Dame diver (along with Heather Mattingly) to earn All-America honors. She also placed 15th on the three-meter boards.
Sounds like a good season for anyone? But, not for Perry-Eaton.
“I did not dive well last year,” she says.
A surprising line coming from someone who accomplished the most of any diver in Irish history, but she wants and expects more out of herself.
“I have not gotten back to where I was coming into Notre Dame as a freshman before my injury and I want to step it up.”
It is frightening to think about where she would be if not for the devastating injury. However she is quick to point out “I don’t want to think about where I could be and I am looking towards the future.”
She is looking at a very bright future not only in diving, but also with a Notre Dame degree in aerospace engineering.
“I would like to do research at NASA, as any engineer would. I would give anything to go into space. That would be awesome, ” the diver says.
Before she reaches the stars, she wants to spend a few years teaching and has developed a love for children.
“I would love to go into Teach for America,” Perry-Eaton says.
“I love kids. It is something about them being so liberating. They are everything you wish you could be but can’t.”
As for diving, she is undefeated so far in 2003 and is coming off of two impressive victories last week at a very competitive Texas A&M Invitational. She also wants to maintain her title as BIG EAST Diver of the Year.
“I came here to win a national title and I still strive towards that goal.”
The up-coming year and beyond looks very promising for Perry-Eaton as she will compete in the 2004 United State Olympic Trials in the spring, with dreams of diving at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Greece.
Sometimes life is not about the destination, but about the journey and the obstacles you overcome. Perry-Eaton is on her way to achieving all that she has ever dreamed of and has had quite the journey along the way.
So far on her journey she has conquered all of the obstacles that have stood in her way, and as for her final destination, she will undoubtedly end up among the stars.