By Jeff Owens/Photos by SC Athletics
When Julia Vincent stepped onto the 3-meter board at the FINA World Diving Championships in Budapest, Hungary last month, she could have wilted under the intense pressure.
It had happened to her before. First in the Rio Olympics last summer, and then in the NCAA Championships this spring. After a dominating regular season that led to an SEC championship, the South Carolina junior finished a disappointing 18th in the NCAAs. And that came nearly a year after she finished 28th in Rio.
Facing the best female divers in the world, with a chance to make history for her country, Vincent faced a daunting challenge.
"I had a problem where I see other good divers around me and I back down to the challenge," the native of Gauteng, South Africa said. "It's something that I knew I had to take control of."
This time, Vincent was up to the challenge, becoming the first diver in South African history to advance to the final round of the world diving championships. She finished 12th to make a name for herself on the world stage and set up a possible Olympic return in 2020.
"Coming from those Olympic games to 12th in the world is a huge jump. Her stock goes way up internationally," South Carolina diving coach Todd Sherritt said. "She pulled it off, and it was quite exciting."
Vincent, a 2016 All-American in the 1-meter dive, was one of four South Carolina swimmers and divers to excel in international competition this summer. Swimmers Tom Peribonio (400-meter IM), Akram Mahmoud (1500 meter and 800-meter freestyle) and incoming freshman Brandonn Almeida each made the finals of the world championships.
Vincent's performance was unprecedented for an athlete from a country that has produced few world-class divers. Growing up near Johannesburg, she played netball and field hockey as a kid and ran track in high school before discovering diving. After advancing to the club level, she caught the eye of Sherritt and earned a scholarship to South Carolina.
Because South Africa is not known for diving, Vincent flew under the radar of most Division I programs. Sherritt saw her on a video provided by a recruiting service and was intrigued.
"Normally, I wouldn't even have viewed it, to be honest with you, but I took a look at it and I just saw something in one of her dives," Sherritt said. "She was kind of a diamond in the rough."
When she visited South Carolina, Vincent fell in love with the fall weather in Columbia and her future teammates.
"I came on a trip around October so I got to go to a football game and spend some time with the team and two days into my trip, I knew I was coming here," she said. "I connected so well with Todd, my coach, and the rest of the team just became like my family immediately."
Sherritt knew right away that Vincent was a perfect fit for his team, as well as a potential recruiting gem.
"Me and my team just fell in love with her personality," Sherritt said. "I looked at her and said, 'You know what, I'm going to take a chance here and offer her a full ride,' and she took it and came here and just immediately started working right away."
Vincent made rapid improvement as a freshman and then garnered All-American honors by finishing fourth in the nation in the 1-meter as a sophomore. As a junior, she emerged as one of the most dominant divers in the country.
Vincent went undefeated during the regular season, winning 18 meets in the 3-meter. She won the SEC championship in the 3-meter and finished third in the 1-meter.
She attributes her performance at South Carolina to her disappointment in Rio, where she struggled with her technique and finished 28th.
"My performance at the Olympics was not what I wanted it to be, so I was motivated to do well and show that I can dive well," Vincent said. "It was really good for me to come back and have a good winning streak all the way through the SECs. It gave me a lot of confidence."
As it turned out, all Vincent needed was a bit of confidence.
"Sometimes I step up on the board and I feel like I can't perform the way I do at practice or the way I do at meets that don't have such huge pressure," she said. "So I definitely learned a lot throughout the whole season."
Going into last season, Vincent and Sherritt spent hours working on her confidence and making changes to her form, working out the technical issues that plagued her in Rio.
It paid off with a new approach and a near-perfect season.
"I decided I wanted to be fearless, no matter what," Vincent said. "If the dive didn't go well but I was fearless, at least I had done something right mentally.
"In the SEC, I think I was diving fearlessly."
In a pressure-packed meet that some consider bigger than the NCAAs, Vincent was flawless. Under a bright spotlight, with her teammates cheering her on, she won the 3-meter, finished third in the 1-meter and helped Sherritt earn SEC Coach of the Year.
"We're the best conference in the country and the best divers in the country, and it's hard to win it," Sherritt said. "She went out and did it, and almost won the 1-meter, too."
Though she stumbled in the NCAA Championships, finishing 18th, the experience was crucial to her performance in Budapest. Just like in Rio, she used the disappointment as motivation.
"At NCAAs, it didn't go the way I wanted it to, and it had nothing to do with where I was physically or my diving, it had to do with my confidence level," she said. "I was like, 'I need to fix this issue that I have with my confidence.' Learning from that really helped me."
It led to one of the highlights of her career. While her SEC season was impressive, representing her country on a world stage was special.
"It was just a very surreal experience," she said. "I had represented my country before, but I had never gotten that far in a world event, so just being able to represent my country and dive well was so great. It was so much fun."
Sherritt attributes Vincent's performance to an infectious work ethic that inspires and motivates the rest of the team.
"She comes in every single day and gives a thousand percent," he said. "She just has a lot of heart in her performances. It's more than just going out there an executing. There is a drive within her that can't be taught."
Vincent attributes her tenacity to her mother, Cressida Vincent, a single mom who raised her and her twin brother, Nicholas.
"I am very competitive and I like to do well, and I know if I want to succeed I have to do things that other people aren't doing," she said. "I try to go into the pool every day and do a little extra to make sure I am staying on top of my game."
Vincent hopes to set more records during her senior year and lead her team back to the NCAAs. Then it's on to the Commonwealth Games in Nassau, Bahamas in April, the world championships again in two years and, hopefully, another shot in the Olympics.
Sherritt believes her performance in Budapest could propel her to the podium in Tokyo.
"There's just something there that I really feel she can be a medal contender in the next Olympics," he said. "I really think she has all the tools."