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She's the Latest Earley to Stay on Board : Diving: Arika follows her family's tradition to become a standout diver for Mission Viejo High.

March 28, 1994|KIM Q. BERKSHIRE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MISSION VIEJO — With bloodlines like hers, what else was Arika Earley going to do?

"It was always the thing to do," said Earley, the defending Southern Section Division I diving champion who has rarely strayed from a diving board in 17 years. "I grew up hanging around the pool."

Home at the Earleys was an ongoing conversation that centered around springboards, multiple back somersaults and degrees of difficulty. Earley, a junior at Mission Viejo High, has a former Olympian and USC coach for a father (Rick), the UC Irvine coach for a mother (Conni), an NCAA champion for a brother (USC's Brian) and another diving sibling, a sister who dives in television commercials (Wendy, also a former USC diver).

Arika, the youngest of the Earley clan, wasn't about to break with tradition. She inherited her family's love of the sport, and the talented gene pool that accompanied it.

Earley was so young when she first started competing, she had to have family members fill out her meet sheets. And she remembers meets where older divers would toss her up like a rag doll on sleeping bags while meet announcers would beg them to stop.

"It was the natural thing to do," she continued. "I did quit for a while when I was 10, 11, and tried all these other sports. It was quite a shock to the family, but my mom supported me."

It wasn't long before Earley tired of track--she high jumped--volleyball, softball and dance.

"I was a horrible dancer," she said with a laugh. "The (other sports) were fun, but I missed diving."

The pressure of keeping the family tradition of excellence alive, is sometimes too much for a young family member. But Arika doesn't mind.

"I think I could have been successful in something else, like volleyball," she said. "But this is where I belong."

The sport would probably concur. According to her club coach, Hongping Li of the Mission Viejo Nadadores, Earley is one of the strongest one-meter springboard divers around.

"In terms of strength, she's one of the most powerful in her age group," Li said. "At the senior level, she's very athletic and has an extremely high vertical jump, which helps her."

What she doesn't have is the grace of a gazelle.

"It has to do with God-given talent," he said. "And you can't have everything. She has strength, but not a lot of grace."

But Li believes she has the proper tools to finish in the top four places at this weekend's Zone D Diving Championships, being hosted by the Nadadores.

It is a qualifying meet for this summer's senior nationals and is an especially crucial meet for Earley because it's her first meet of the season and because she has made a bad habit of barely missing a qualifying spot.

"For the last three years, I've missed qualifying by a place or a point," she said. "It's been hard."

She is determined to make the cut this year.

"If I make seniors, that would be great," she said. "I'm putting a lot of pressure on myself."

Which, Earley said, isn't always a good idea: "Sometimes when I'm under a lot of pressure, I fall apart."

Li doesn't anticipate Earley falling apart and believes she can finish in the top four, but he does wish she had better practices in preparation for this meet.

Li said Earley sometimes loses focus because her mind is miles away.

"Overall, she's on schedule in terms of her progress," he said. "But she has had a tough year training. She hasn't been training as well as expected. She realizes this.

"She's struggling a bit because there are distractions in her life. At her age, there are a lot of different things that draw you away from what you need to be focused on. It happens to a lot of girls. Once she's focused on what she wants to do, she'll be hard to beat."

Li believes when Earley gets her focus back fully, she can be as successful as her father and brother. "It depends on how much she wants to succeed," he said. "But she loves diving, and she's very competitive."

But Earley isn't looking ahead to NCAA championship and Olympic berths just yet. She wants to have good junior and senior seasons to attract college recruiters.

"It's too early, but I'd like to stay in California, maybe Berkeley or Pepperdine," said Earley, who doesn't feel the desire to flee the area and the family name. "Besides, if I wanted to do that, I'd have to leave the country."

For now, Earley is eager to start competition. An athlete of Earley's temperament needs to be tested to stay motivated, Li said.

"She needs some sort of feedback to tell her how well she's doing," he said.

Beginning next week and throughout the summer, Earley will get plenty of tests, including the section meet in May, where she will attempt to defend her title.

As Mission Viejo's only diver, Earley is happy to contribute valuable points toward the Diablos' shot at the section title, but she feels ill at ease describing herself as the defending section champion.

"It was the first time I won anything in a long time," she said. "It was exciting, fun. It's a weird thing though, to think about defending my title."

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