Michigan diver Jason Coben never takes his NCAA co-championship
ring out of its case. After tying for the individual national
championship for platform diving in March, he hasn’t even
worn the ring once.

Beth Dykstra

“It’s one of those rings you can’t
wear,” Coben said. “It’s really shiny, too
gaudy.”

So imagine Coben’s surprise when he returned home from the
World Cup trials in North Carolina two weeks ago to find out that
his ring – the symbol of all his hard work over the past
three years – was suddenly MIA.

“I was freaking out,” he recalled. “I was so
pissed.”

Coben immediately got on the move. He knew that his roommates
had thrown a party while he was gone for those six days and
immediately thought it had been stolen from his room during the
party.

“I called the police, and they were like,
‘You’re probably not going to see it again,’
” Coben said.

Coben printed out a picture of the ring and gave it to a
detective, who checked with all the local pawn shops, but found
nothing resembling the shimmering piece of gold.

Just when Coben was beginning to give up hope and become
resigned to buying a replacement, a friend of a friend, exhibiting
the resilience of young Frodo Baggins, showed up at Coben’s
place and returned the ring to its rightful owner.

“I didn’t ask any questions,” Coben said.
“I was just glad to have it back.”

Which was more shocking for Coben: Getting his ring back or
winning it in the first place? Coben, now a senior, finished
seventh at NCAAs his sophomore year and was seeded eighth entering
the finals last year.

“It was really a surprise,” Coben said. “I
didn’t think I’d be able to win. Somehow, everything
just fell right in the water.”

The ring “is a sentimental thing,” Michigan diving
coach Chris Bergere explained. “It’s a piece of
material. You can never take away the feeling that kid had when he
won the national championship.”

LRC

Coben would not have enjoyed that heart-pounding sensation if it
weren’t for his little sister.

Just above his left breast, Coben sports a tattoo with her
initials, LRC (Lauren Rebecca Coben), to remind himself that
without her guidance during his freshman year, he would have had no
ring to lose.

“I almost dropped out of college,” Coben said.
“My sister called me, and she was like, ‘What are you
doing? That’s pretty stupid.’ She convinced me to stay
in college. It’s pretty amazing, because she was only 11
years old.”

Kids say the darndest things, and so do our elder statesmen.
Coben’s coach at the time, the legendary Dick Kimball, told
him “to get his head out of his ass.”

“I put him under a lot of pressure, in terms of ‘Do
it my way, or transfer,’ ” Kimball said.

The University placed Coben on probation because of his poor
grades and gave him an ultimatum after his freshman year: Get
booted out of school for a semester or make a 3.8 grade point
average in spring and summer classes. After his sister convinced
him to stay in school at Michigan, Coben barely got the 3.8 he
needed.

“I think that year turned me around,” Coben said.
“I came in here a stupid freshman. I wanted to have the whole
party life and not really worry about grades.

“(Kimball) lit a fire under my butt.”

The view from the top

Any athlete or coach who has ever won a championship will tell
you that winning the second one is always tougher than the first.
Just ask the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

After backing his way into a national title his junior year,
Coben was afraid he couldn’t meet people’s expectations
of him this season.

“I was just scared out of my mind,” Coben said.
“I didn’t know what people were expecting out of me. I
didn’t expect to win last year, so it wasn’t like I was
working toward that goal and accomplished it. It was an
accident.”

Sound familiar?

Michigan Assistant Athletic Director Greg Harden, the resident
sports psychologist, has been meeting with Coben weekly for the
past four months. Harden, who has worked with Michigan athletes
since 1986, compares Coben’s situation to that of two-time
Super Bowl MVP Tom Brady, whom Harden met with regularly during his
time at Michigan.

“Jason and Brady are dealing with the same issue,”
Harden said. “Jason went to the top of his peers. He was the
numero uno. But was it a fluke? Was it an accident? Jason never saw
it coming. Brady never saw it coming. This year is the crucial
year. Can I do it on purpose?”

Judging by the first few dual meets of this season against top
divers from Auburn and Georgia, Coben had taken a step backward
from his national championship form.

“It was a buzz kill,” said Bergere, who was
Coben’s first diving coach back in his hometown of
Philadelphia and is now in his first year at Michigan. “He
wasn’t being competitive (with the other divers). He was
depressed. He was second guessing himself.”

Along came Harden, whose job is to help Coben conquer his fear
of failing. He does it by making sure that by the time Coben has
marched the 10 meters up to the platform, he has already completed
the dive a dozen times in his head.

“What we try to do is normalize fear as a part of being
excited,” Harden said. “It’s predictable that
fear should enter into your thinking.

“Courage isn’t the absence of fear, but facing fear.
Every hero is a reluctant hero. They reluctantly face fear, but
they face it time and time again.”

Friday night at Coben’s last meet at Canham Natatorium,
his exhausting mental and physical regimen began to pay off. Coben
swept the diving events against Michigan State, setting a Big Ten
record on the one-meter springboard with a six-dive total of
379.35. Kimball and Bergere agreed it was the best dual meet of
Coben’s career.

“He’s really gotten his confidence back,”
Bergere said.

Good thing, too. Confidence is needed when you’re hurling
your body into water 10 meters below.

“Every time you get up there and you don’t respect
it, you’re going to smack real hard,” Coben said.

Coben respects it, and he’s learned to respect the amount
of work it takes to become the best diver in the country. As Harden
puts it, Coben has become “deliberate and intentional”
about repeating as national champion. If he wins this season, it
will be no accident.

When Coben told Kimball about his lost national title ring,
Kimball — who wears an Olympic ring on his finger —
told Coben, “You may have to pay for it, but I’m sure
you can get another one.”

Kimball meant that Coben could buy a replacement, but he can
also secure another one in the NCAA Championships which begin March
25. Through his work with Harden, Coben has already made the down
payment on that second ring.

J. Brady McCollough can be reached at
“mailto:bradymcc@umich.edu”>bradymcc@umich.edu.

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