Hampton freshman Gabriella Elk thriving at diving

Saturday, March 11, 2023 | 11:01 AM

When Hampton freshman Gabriella Elk made the transition from gymnastics to diving, one part of the switch proved to be tricky.

“I was never used to landing on my head,” she said. “That took some getting used to.”

Elk has landed among the best young divers in Hampton history.

Despite being a relative newcomer to the sport, Elk placed third in the WPIAL Class 2A diving championships last month and qualified for the PIAA championships March 15 at Bucknell.

“Gab has phenomenal technique,” Hampton diving coach Jeff Brown said. “She’s very clean. She’s very precise. … She has very clean lines. She stays very straight, and she gets into the water really well.”

Elk is the first Hampton female diver to reach states since 2018 and only the second Talbot freshman in at least 25 years to make the PIAA championships, joining four-time qualifier Adrienne White (2015-18).

Elk recorded a 12-dive score of 450.25 at the WPIAL championships, placing behind only four-time WPIAL champ Maggie Foley of North Catholic (491.40) and Quaker Valley sophomore Ruby Olliffe (477.65).

“Going in, I wanted to make it to states,” Elk said, “but I wasn’t completely sure how that would go.”

Elk’s burgeoning diving career has always carried a bit of uncertainty. She was a successful Level 7 gymnast in fifth grade when she developed two stress fractures in her spine. She wore a large back brace for two months and was sidelined for five months.

When Elk finally returned to gymnastics, she quickly realized she had to make a change.

“It was just a lot on my body,” she said. “So I decided to try something new. I really didn’t know what to expect.”

Elk picked diving — a sport that lends itself to former gymnasts — and joined the Pitt Diving Club as a sixth-grader. She said the sport didn’t come easily to her at first and she landed awkwardly in the water — think belly-flop — “more times than I’d like to admit.”

“I heard it was an easy transition because I already knew how to flip and how to twist,” she said. “But it was definitely different than I expected from gymnastics.”

She stayed with it, however, and hard work and natural talent began to converge into a confident diver. But it’s never easy. The covid pandemic and a broken foot conspired to cancel her first couple of years of competition, and a concussion this past fall sidelined her for a month before her ninth-grade varsity season.

So when Elk walked into North Allegheny on Feb. 24 for the WPIAL Class 2A championships, it was one of the first big-time diving events of her life.

Unruffled, she was atop the scoreboard following a couple of early dives.

“She seemed really comfortable at WPIALs, which is half the battle,” Brown said. “If you can be relaxed in competition, you are going to do well.”

She scored well on her inward one-and-a-half and nailed her back flip one-and-a-half twist, a dive that has given her trouble in the past. She ended up third in the WPIAL, the best finish by a Hampton diver since White brought home three consecutive silver medals from 2016-18. The top seven finishers qualified for the PIAA championships, where Elk will face off against the best divers in the state.

“She’s just an absolutely beautiful diver,” Hampton swimming coach Morgan Zweygardt said. “I’ll watch her in practice and she just looks so clean. But she’s never satisfied. She’s ready to do better every time.”

Elk will have some company at the PIAA meet. Hampton qualified a large contingent for states, including senior Ben Sheets, who broke the school record in the 100 backstroke (50.94 seconds) while placing third in the WPIAL championships. The Queens (N.C.) recruit also qualified in the 200 IM after taking third in the WPIAL.

Sheets’ freshman sister, Lainey, broke the school records in the 100 backstroke (56.65) and 200 IM (2:07.61) while placing second and fourth, respectively, at the WPIAL championships.

Other PIAA qualifiers are senior Emma An (200 freestyle), freshman Libby Sheets (100 backstroke), sophomore Chris Belch (100 butterfly, 100 back) and junior Zach Sutterlin (100 breaststroke). The boys and girls also qualified 200 medley relay and 400 free relay teams, and the girls 200 free relay is an alternate.

The girls placed sixth as a team at the WPIAL meet, while the rebuilding boys, the two-time defending WPIAL Class 2A champion, slipped to ninth.

“We knew the competition was going to be stiffer and we knew we didn’t have as many boys,” Zweygardt said. “But when you look at how they did for themselves, I think they did a phenomenal job. They had tons of best times. If they improved on their times and someone else is just a little bit faster, it’s hard to be concerned.”


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