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Fast and Fearless: Matt Cooper Could Dive at the Olympics

At nine, Matt Cooper was discovered somersaulting off a diving board in Bethesda. Ten years later, he has a good shot at the Olympics.

Washington is known for Olympic-caliber swimmers, including Tom Dolan and Kate Ziegler. But this year local divers may also be making a splash.

In June, John Wolsh, coach of Montgomery Dive Club, will watch three of his protégés head to Olympic diving trials in Indianapolis. Each of the trio—which includes 19-year-old Meg Hostage of Potomac and 22-year-old Mary Yarrison of Springfield—is very accomplished.

The third diver is Bethesda’s Matt Cooper—a diver with tremendous raw talent, says Wolsh.

“He’s got a bit of the X-Games mentality—aggressive, always willing to try new things,” says Wolsh, who works out of the Germantown Indoor Swim Center. “He also has the ideal body type.”

At five-foot-six and 145 pounds—of what appears to be pure muscle—Cooper is built for speed, and he can spin fast. The 19-year-old University of Texas freshman and Walt Whitman High School graduate will compete in the Olympic trials on an individual ten-meter platform and with a diving partner—Harrison Jones of Texas—for the men’s synchronized three-meter. He also is expected to qualify for trials on the three-meter springboard.

Cooper was nine years old when a family friend saw him tumbling off the board at Congressional Country Club and suggested to Bill and Nancy Cooper that they take their son to see Wolsh. “I saw that he could somersault very fast,” recalls Wolsh. After watching the youngster, he said to Bill and Nancy: “I can have your son at National Finals in two years.”

Matt was ten when he started training with Wolsh, who made good on his pledge: At age 12, Matt came in seventh at Junior Nationals, competing against the best divers in the 13-and-under age group.

“He’s always been pretty fearless,” says Bill Cooper, who is an obstretrician/gynecologist. Nancy is a nurse. Matt also has a twin brother and an older sister.

A polite teenager, Cooper is soft-spoken and almost demure—unusual for an athlete who must be part showman.

To prepare mentally for events, Cooper doesn’t listen to adrenaline-pumping music as other swimmers and divers do—Eminem’s Lose Yourself helped drive Olympian Michael Phelps to success—but rather, as Matt says sheepishly, “anything by Tim McGraw.” Low-key country music helps Matt with visualization, a twice-daily practice in which he mentally runs through his dives using all his senses, even, he says, smelling the pool and hearing the rhythm of the board.

The fact that Cooper has attended diving camps at the Indianapolis Natatorium, the site of the trials—“I’ve had my butt kicked there by the Chinese, Germans, and Russians,” he says—should help. He knows the pool well. The diving well is painted dark blue for better “spotting”—seeing into the water on takeoff and at each somersault.

Both Wolsh and Cooper are confident that if he doesn’t make the 2008 Olympic team, he’ll have an even better shot in 2012. “The depth of quality in US men’s diving is the best it’s been since 1988,” Wolsh says. “But if Matt hits every one of his dives, he could be second at trials. He has the knack of making it look effortless, like Greg Louganis did.”

This article is from the May 2008 issue of The Washingtonian. For more articles from the issue, click here

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