By Matt Liebowitz
Gabby Mercier made an indelible mark on Williston’s diving program this year. She broke the school record for the six-dive and the 11-dive events; she broke the pool record for the 11-dive event; she broke her own NEPSAC Division II 11-dive record; and she set the 11-dive New England Open record, landing the highest score of all time in NEPSAC history.
If the stats seem overwhelming, how about a more succinct encapsulation of Gabby’s four years of outstanding accomplishments from Williston’s Athletic Director, Mark Conroy: “She’s arguably the greatest diver in the school’s history.”
The sentiment is shared by head swimming and diving coach David Koritkoski. “Gabriella should be credited with helping to revitalize our diving program,” he said. “She is one of the primary reasons our program is so healthy, and her impact will be felt by Williston swimmers and divers for years to come.”
Come fall, Gabby will join the diving team at Williams College, where she’ll hit the board under the direction of Coach Kit Koch. Her mother, Lynn, who also serves as Gabby’s diving coach at Williston, will be relatively nearby, in Granby, Mass., where Gabby, for a few more months at least, still lives. She’ll also be close to her club team, Springfield Area Diving, and coach Pete Avdoulos, as well as Thompsons Gymnastic Center in South Hadley, where she’s coached the past two summers.
Everything is lining up as it should for the accomplished and responsible 18-year-old senior. It wasn’t so long ago, though, that things took a nasty turn, one that threatened to derail all the current success she’s found.
Two years ago, a fluke, “one-in-a-million accident” as she called it, stalled Gabby’s diving career. Instead of taking on new challenges or perfecting her existing roster of dives, she instead fought through surgery and months of physical therapy. It was a grueling period; the inactivity went against everything Gabby knew as a competitive athlete.
The injury came on Valentine’s Day, 2015. A sophomore at the time, Gabby was competing at home against Suffield Academy when, in the middle of the reverse one-and-a-half, she mistook the sun coming through the glass for the ceiling. Because so much of diving is noticing and counting rotations in relation to the ceiling or the pool, the illusion threw off her spatial awareness; she came out of the dive too early and shattered her left middle finger on the board.
“It was bone mush,” Gabby said, pointing to a protrusion in her knuckle where the bone, or what’s left of it, is held together by a pin and rod.
Gabby had done the dive multiple times. She’d practiced it, perfected it. The devastating injury was as much mental as physical.
“It was a strange betrayal,” she said. “I’d done everything the same way I’d always done it. You trust your spot, you trust your body, and then, ‘bam.’”
Although the injury, she admitted, was “incredibly tough to overcome,” Gabby looks back on the traumatic event with the confidence of one who’s confronted an obstacle, stared it in the face, and risen above it.
“Knowing that it could happen again and end my career is tough to think about,” she said. “But when I think of it now, I know I’m going to be okay because I’ve worked past it. Back then it was, ‘What if, what if, what if?’ Overcoming the ‘what if’ proves that I can do [the dive] anytime I want.”
A deeper look at Gabby’s life outside the pool shows that Gabby is, in fact, a born fighter.
Until recently, Gabby’s severe peanut allergy was an ever-present fear. Sitting near someone eating peanuts, or touching a doorknob used by “someone who may have just had a peanut butter and jelly in the dining hall” could induce an intense, life-threatening allergic reaction, she said.
For the past three years, Gabby has been on an immunotherapy program at the New England Food Allergy Treatment Center in West Hartford, Conn. The treatments, and the experience of living with such a severe allergy, have infused Gabby’s life with a purpose beyond the pool. In fact, she plans to enter a pre-med program at Williams with the goal of working to address the issue she’s suffered from her whole life.
“As someone who’s experienced [a life-threatening allergy], I know the fear,” she said. “I know how safe you have to be. If I can help other people because of my experience, I want to do it.”
The allergy, Gabby said, “Made me who I am. I’m committed to finding a goal.”
Beyond the records, the trophies, and the recognition, all of which she more than deserves, Gabby’s true championship spirit lies in her tenacious and optimistic confidence.
“If there’s something I want,” Gabby said, “I can overcome anything to get there.”
And she already has: the reverse one-and-a-half dive is back in her routine.