Team Canada’s newest high-diving sensation is set to take the plunge into post-graduate studies at Yorkville University this fall.
“I think it’s important that you follow all the many passions you have. Diving is absolutely a passion of mine, but being a mental health advocate is my number two,” said Carlson, 21, who recently graduated from Florida State University as one of the most accomplished female divers in Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) history.
“Finding this (MACP) program and reading about how you can be certified in two-and-a-half years was phenomenal…Then, finding out it was an online program, so I can follow my Olympic dreams AND this program at the same time? It all just came together, and I decided (Yorkville) was the one.”
Born in Fort Frances and raised in Thunder Bay, Carlson is a self-described “daredevil” who made the athletic leap from gymnastics to diving shortly after witnessing her first dive show during a childhood visit to Canada’s Wonderland in 2008.
“My heart was with diving from that moment on,” she said. “My mom put me in right away, and from there I fell in love with it.”
Named to Canada’s Junior National team after just her first year in the sport, Carlson’s competitive diving career immediately took flight.
Carlson was a 12-time junior national medalist who rose to the top of the podium in the 3-metre event twice at the Junior Pan Am Games (2013 and 2015) and at both the 2014 International Youth Diving Meet and the 2016 Elite Junior National Championships. She also placed fifth in 3-metre diving event at the Olympic Trials in 2016 – the same year she earned a diving scholarship to Florida State.
“From 2009 on, I represented Team Canada all over the world at junior competitions, Junior Pan Ams, the FINA Junior Worlds, and really just travelled and did the sport I loved, and it really didn’t get better than that,” Carlson explained.
But with the accolades also came a certain degree of pressure to look “perfect” in the eyes of diving judges.
“I thought I had to look the best, be the best, and slim down,” she lamented.
“Diving is a really tiny sport where so many athletes are super small, so I thought if I wanted to go to the Olympics, I’d have to become super small, too, and change my appearance to appear ‘correct’ in the eyes of the judges.”
While that pressure caused Carlson to go through an “eating disorder stage,” it also ultimately lead her towards the pursuit of her second passion for mental health advocacy.
At Florida State, where she successfully balanced her Bachelor of Science studies in Psychology with an ever-flourishing university diving career, Carlson’s whole outlook changed under the guidance of her coach, John Proctor, and her close-knit community of fellow divers.
“I realized that you’re allowed to be judged on your talent and your happiness and your positivity on the pool deck – and also how all that also plays a role in how you perform,” she said.
“I learned it’s okay to look different than others, it’s okay to stand out, it’s okay to just be yourself, because that’s what’s going to make you stand out in your performance.”
That newly inspired mindset worked wonders for Carlson in the pool. After four years as an FSU Seminole, she graduated this past spring as a three-time ACC MVP Diver (2017, 2019, 2020), two-time ACC Diver of the Year (2017, 2020), and seven-time ACC medalist, among many other achievements.
While her university diving career was cut short by the cancellation of the NCAA championships amid the COVID-19 crisis, Carlson also struggled with whether or not to continue the sport she loved with three wrist fractures under her belt.
Then she discovered her aptitude for the high-octane sport of high diving – which, unlike traditional diving, allows swimmers to enter the water feet first.
“At first, I was, like, ‘No way, no way! That sport’s crazy! Only insane people do high diving…’” she said, noting that female divers jump from heights of 20 to 23 metres.
“But then I posted an Instagram video of myself doing a high-diving trick, and everyone told me I had to go for it.”
It was one of those very same videos, Carlson said, that caught the eye of Team Canada high diver Lysanne Richard, who spends her summers travelling the globe as one of eight female divers on the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series.
“Lysanne contacted me and she was the sweetest human. She basically told me, ‘If I can do it, you can do it. You have to join me on this beautiful journey,’” Carlson laughed.
By July, Team Canada had reached out to Carlson, as well, inviting her to come out to their training facilities in Montreal for a trial month. By her third day there, she was already apartment shopping. Come September, just as she begins her MACP studies at Yorkville, she’ll also begin her full-time training schedule under coach Stéphane Lapointe as Team Canada’s newest high-diving addition.
Like Richard, Carlson is optimistic that the 2021 diving season will see her spending her springs travelling with Team Canada to various FINA high diving events around the world, and her summers visiting exotic locales on the Red Bull Cliff Diving tour – something she wouldn’t have been able to do if she’d enrolled in a more traditional post-graduate program.
“I really didn’t want to take a break from my studies after graduating from Florida State, so having this option to do my Masters online at Yorkville right away was really the perfect fit for me,” said the veteran student athlete, who will have to juggle her studies with a full-time training and international competition schedule.
“The fact that I’ll be able to do both (diving and school) makes me so happy.”
As for her non-diving-related future career plans, Carlson said she’s hopeful Yorkville will give her the tools she’ll need to help other young athletes gain inner confidence in themselves.
“Personally, going through an eating disorder stage really motivated me to want to help and give back to people who are also going through judged sports who are sometimes being super hard on themselves,” she said.
“Your mental state can absolutely affect your performance – it all rolls into each other – so I want to help them recognize that they’re beautiful, they’re talented, and they can do it.”