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Best of the class

Heather VanHoegarden | Wednesday, May 12, 2004

When one thinks of who would be The Observer’s 2003-04 Outstanding Notre Dame Senior Female Athlete of the Year, the last place one would likely think to look is on the diving board. But thanks to Meghan Perry-Eaton, maybe some will look twice. Perry-Eaton finished third in 1-meter diving at the NCAA Swimming and Diving Championships in 2004, just 3.3 points behind first place. She also took 28th in 3-meter diving. Her third-place finish was the highest ever by a Notre Dame athlete, and it was good enough to earn her All-American honors. She is the sixth Irish athlete, and second diver to earn All-American honors.All of this came after Perry-Eaton was named the Big East’s Most Outstanding Diver two years in a row, leading the Irish to two consecutive Big East Championships. She swept all the diving events this season.”She has just done a wonderful job the last two years, getting better at NCAAs, getting better at conference, being consistent,” Irish coach Bailey Weathers said.But for Perry-Eaton, nothing has come easy.SetbackPerry-Eaton thought she was in the prime of her career coming out of high school. The Brandon, Fla. native was a three-time diving All-American at Bloomingdale High School and qualified for U.S. Nationals three times. After just one year of diving, she qualified for the Junior Outdoor Nationals.So when Perry-Eaton left her home and her coach, she was nervous about her new surroundings in South Bend.”My coach from home was unbelievable,” she said. “Coming to Notre Dame was a risk because I wasn’t sure what to expect from the diving coach. But he had a good reputation, so I decided to come here.”But her freshman year was not what she expected.”When I came here freshman year, I was really peaking in my career,” Perry-Eaton said. “I had achieved everything up until then.”Up until her injury, that is.Perry-Eaton competed in two events as a freshman before suffering a season-ending back injury.”I avoided the pool at all costs [when I got injured] because it was unbelievably upsetting,” Perry-Eaton said. “I withdrew myself so I could focus on my studies.”People told her that her career was over, and that she wouldn’t make it back, but the hard-working diver refused to quit. That summer, she went home to rehab with her coach after spending time at Notre Dame studying and rehabbing.”She continued to get stronger,” Weathers said. “The trainers did an awesome job with her.”Silencing doubtersPerry-Eaton returned to the board for her sophomore year. But it wasn’t what she expected.”There were unbelievable ups and downs,” she said. “I don’t think there are words to describe what a roller coaster it was. It was hard to realize that I went from everything I wanted to be to absolutely nothing. I didn’t think I could reach [the] expectations.”In her second year, Perry-Eaton missed the cut for the NCAA Championships after finishing sixth in the 1-meter diving and 13th in the 3-meter. She also finished second in the Big East on the 1-meter board, good for All-Big East honors.But despite the seemingly successful return, Perry-Eaton was not pleased with her performance at the time. Now, she sees things differently.”It was a good year, but I wasn’t happy,” she said. “But now it’s easier to realize I did achieve a lot. When you’re struggling, you’re never happy, but when you look back, it’s like you should have been happy with that.”And Weathers agreed.”She has really made great progress [throughout her career],” Weathers said.Perry-Eaton followed her sophomore campaign with even more improvement going into junior year. It was a year that saw her qualify for the NCAA Championships for the first time. She earned honorable mention All-American honors on the 1-meter board, placing ninth at the NCAAs. She also finished 20th on the 3-meter board. She also earned Big East Diver of the Year after winning the 1-meter event and taking second in the 3-meter event.But Perry-Eaton remained unsatisfied.Senior yearAfter going home last summer, Perry-Eaton said she trained harder than ever with her coach and came back feeling good about her diving.”I trained really hard last summer,” she said. “My coach is one of the most incredible people I have ever met. When I get home, the focus, the motivation, everything falls into place. The time at home in the summer has been invaluable.”So when she returned to Notre Dame in the fall, Perry-Eaton said she felt good about her chances.”I came back in really good physical shape and mentally, I was ready,” she said. “There were things I wanted to achieve, and I wasn’t going to give up on those. I realized coming in, that if I was going to achieve what I wanted, it was going to be on my own, and I couldn’t give up. I couldn’t let other things distract me.”Perry-Eaton proceeded to win the Big East diving competitions and go on to the NCAA Championships for the second straight year, working with supportive teammates and Weathers.”The one thing that is great about Meghan is that she was very consistent throughout the year,” Weathers said. “What she brought to the team is a consistent performance week-to-week. That’s huge for us.”And then she went to the NCAA Championships, where she took third in the 1-meter competition, the highest finish ever by a Notre Dame diver. But she wasn’t happy.”I ended up third,” she said. “But I was in tears. I watched it taken away from me – I could have been second or first.”Weathers agreed, as both he and Perry-Eaton were skeptical about the judging.”It’s a little political at the judging zones because we’re not a Big Ten school,” Weathers said. “They have a tendency to be protective of kids from a given conference.”Back for moreBut Perry-Eaton isn’t finished – at least not yet. The aerospace engineering major will graduate this weekend, however, she will return to Notre Dame in the fall for graduate classes. She will then dive, using her fifth year of eligibility, granted after her injury freshman year.”I want to be training at home this summer, and that’s how I’m going to get where I want to be,” she said.But first, she has to rehab a broken foot that she suffered diving after this season. As a result, Perry-Eaton missed the Olympic Trials, a chance for her to go up against some of the best divers in the world. However, Weathers says she has competed against the best.”She’s definitely gone up against the best in this country,” he said. “A lot of the best divers in the world are at NCAA swimming and diving.”And Perry-Eaton is ready for more.”This season, while it was rewarding throughout the season, the end left me bitter,” Perry-Eaton said. “I can’t let that happen to me again.”