When the term “prodigy” is used, it’s usually referring to a young child who accomplishes great things in a given field.
Consider then Travis Russo, who can be described as an adult prodigy. Russo, a freshman diver on the College of San Mateo swimming and diving team, did not pick up the sport until last December. Fast forward six months after his first practice dive and Russo found himself standing on the podium at the California Community College Swimming and Diving state championships May 2 with a third-place finish and All-American recognition in the 3-meter spring board competition.
“I was really excited,” said Russo, 19, and a 2012 graduate of San Mateo High School.
Russo also finished 10th on the 1-meter spring board.
Russo admitted that he didn’t have a lot of success — on the scoreboard — during the regular season. But the simple fact of successfully completing a dive in competition was success enough for him.
“I learned a lot of dives really fast, but there were a lot of errors on each one (learning them),” Russo said.
In the state championships, everything came together for Russo. CSM swim coach Wright said the eventual winner was head and shoulders better than the rest of the competition, so the race was really for second place. Russo had a shot, but Wright said the degree of difficulty of the eventual second-place finisher’s last dive was higher than Russo’s. But having watched Russo’s dives during the competition, he knew Russo was going to be in the mix to be on the podium.
“His first dive, it didn’t hurt him,” Wright said. “His second dive, he had a great dive.”
And then came Russo’s third dive — an inward 2 1/2. In his final practice of that particular dive, Russo did a full out belly flop. He didn’t try it again until the competition.
“I had only learned [that particular dive] about two weeks prior,” Russo said.
When he did it in the state finals — he nailed it.
“I had the highest score out of the whole meet (with that dive),” Russo said. “When I hit the water, I knew it was good. I came out of the water so excited. I didn’t even care where I finished (in the rankings). I was just so happy I completed it.”
When Russo hit that dive, Wright knew he was in line for a medal.
“It was just beautiful,” Wright said. “He had four of his best dives in a row. That day was going to be his best day on the board and he picked the right day to do it.
“It was remarkable. I could watch the video (right now) of his inward 2 1/2 and be entertained.”
Russo’s decision to even try the sport was on sort of on a whim. He said he was messing around, diving and flipping into the CSM pool when one of his friends, former Serra swimmer Jake Folan, said he should become a diver. CSM already had a female diver, Erin Harris, but in order for her to compete, CSM would need a male counterpart. Wright and Folan eventually persuaded Russo to give the sport a shot. The rest, as they say, is history.
Harris had a big day herself at the state finals, finishing sixth in the 3-meter and earning All-American status. She was 12th on the 1-meter.
Given his dearth of experience and training — which was comprised of about three hours on the weekends training with the masters program at Stanford — the fact Russo came along so fast in such a short amount of time in simply mind-boggling.
“I didn’t get much board time because [CSM] didn’t have boards,” Russo said. “The people I was going against were [training] about 20 hours (a week).”
Russo would pick the brains of the masters divers he was competing with, as well as researching online and watching video clips on how to become a better diver.
Wright knows a lot about swimming and water polo, but admits he has limited knowledge about diving. He does know, however, that Russo was on top of his game at the state championships.
And even he did not have a lot of expectations for Russo this season.
“Any time you have a kid walk on to a spot (on any team), you go in with arms wide open and hope for the best and hope to score some points,” Wright said. “I don’t know what sport you take up [six] months ago and finish third in the state.”
Russo credits a lot of his diving success to his gymnastics background. He has participated in the sport since he was a youngster and currently coaches competitive gymnasts at Excel Gymnastics in Burlingame.
“I’ve been a gymnast for a lot of my life. It was extraordinarily important (to my diving success),” Russo said. “It was a pretty easy transition. Doing the flips in the air was pretty second nature to me.”
What wasn’t second nature was the entry into the water. Russo wasn’t used to performing tricks in the air and going head first into water.
“I was always trained to land feet first,” Russo said. “At first, it was just nerve-wracking (going head first).”
And then there was the jump off the board — the hurdle.
“Everything in the air was natural,” Russo said. “The hurdle — the way you come off the board — mine was really inconsistent at the beginning of the year. That was really, really hard for me. It was all new. … Diving is a mental sport more than anything.”
Now Russo has been bitten by the diving bug. He wants to continue his career but is mulling a decision to take a year off to train, return to CSM or even transfer to a program that is more focused on diving.
Wright will support whatever decision Russo makes.
“I’ve always been about what is best for the kid,” Wright said. “If CSM is not the best choice for Travis, then he needs to go where the best situation is for him.”
Regardless of where he goes, Russo knows diving is now a big part of his life.
“I love the sport. Every night I would go to bed thinking about the dives I would do,” Russo said. “At states, [my performance] came out of nowhere. I gave everything for each dive. … Everything came together for that one day.”