Credit: Maddie Washburn; NU Communications

Abi Knapton softly puts her pencil down to the sheet to jot down the answer to her chemistry homework. Her eyes are glued to her laptop screen, watching her professor teach, while chaos surrounds her.

It was the 2021 Big Ten Swimming & Diving Championships and the last time the All-America diver would represent her home state at the conference meet. Suddenly, the Omaha native flips the page over, closes her laptop, sets her pencil down and springs up on her feet to approach the diving boards once more.

It was time for Knapton’s sixth and final dive of the platform event. With a good dive, first place was possible. She had already earned a  runner-up finish on the three-meter board on the opening day of the meet.

Knapton has a collection of techniques that keep her in a state of “focused calm” while competing, including not paying attention to where she is on the scoreboard. She approached that last dive aiming to perform it how she had practiced and how her coach, Natasha Chikina, had trained her to do it. Knapton did just that. She emerged from the water, still unaware of what was happening. Pulling herself out of the diving well, she spotted her teammates racing toward her. They knew exactly what had just happened.

“I just remember us divers were on the edge of our seats the entire time,” Nebraska diver Sara Troyer said.

Knapton looked at Chikina’s face and then glanced at the scoreboard, realizing that she had just won the Big Ten Platform title.

“It’s a battle at Big Tens,” Knapton said. “It is a pretty hard meet with pretty hard competition so I remember going into it, my fifth year and just really going after that title. I think the feeling that came over me was relief. I had finally accomplished this long-sought-after goal and then just happiness and joy.”

After years of coaching Knapton, Chikina felt overwhelmed with pride and joy when she witnessed her hard work pay off. Not only has Knapton’s dedication as an athlete impacted her coach, but also the kind of person that Knapton embodies.

“She is one of a kind,” Chikina said. “You can look at Abi from different perspectives, both as an athlete and as a person. We became really close and I treat her like my daughter.”

A day later, Knapton captured the one-meter title, making her the first Nebraska athlete to win two diving titles at a conference meet since the 1989 Big Eight Championships. She was named Big Ten Diver of the Meet, but Knapton’s season didn’t end there. At the 2021 NCAA Championships, she earned two first-team All-American honors with a pair of eighth-place performances in platform and three-meter.

Knapton’s exclamation point on the year was being named the 2021 Nebraska Athletics Best Female Athlete and 2021 Nebraska Athletics Female Student-Athlete of the Year. She described receiving the award as, “crazy and unexpected.”

Fellow Nebraska divers were not shocked, however, as they admired Knapton for the diver, the teammate and the friend that she is.

“Abi was an amazing teammate,” Troyer said. “She is who I wanted to be like and I pushed myself to be as good as her. She led by action and always was there to encourage us. She is the best teammate I’ve ever had personally.”

That exclamation point turned out to be more of a semi-colon, as Knapton’s collegiate career didn’t end at Nebraska.

Chikina sat the Nebraska divers down after the season and told them she would be transitioning into a coaching role at Rutgers. At that point in time, Knapton was graduating and planning to start nursing school while continuing to train for the 2024 Olympics. 

“With (Chikina) leaving and going to Rutgers, a school with a platform, it threw in this whole other factor that I needed to consider,” Knapton said. “I had another year of eligibility, I had my COVID year. I wasn’t really planning on using it but I figured I should because of the opportunity that it would provide.”

Knapton’s sixth season was in a different state across the country, forcing her to adjust to a different way of training with a different team. Although there were countless changes, Knapton was still putting the same pressure on herself and set a goal to win the Big Ten platform title again.

“I think I put a lot of pressure on myself and it kind of showed,” Knapton said. “I didn’t perform as well as I wanted to, but what was kind of special about that meet is I had the support and love from my Rutgers teammates and my Nebraska teammates. It was a hard meet but at the end of it, I felt very supported and very encouraged moving forward.”

Diving is known to be mentally challenging.  There are different techniques Knapton has adopted to deal with the pressure that comes with competing at the level she has reached, including reading and doing homework during meets in between her dives.

“The message behind both of those things is that it kind of takes me away from what I’m doing,” Knapton said. “A lot of athletes like to stay in the zone the whole time but for me that can lead to me overthinking. Diving is a huge mental sport. So I sit there and I would overthink or I don’t particularly like watching my competitors dive because then I get in my head and I start calculating scores and start doing a lot of unhelpful thinking so taking a moment back, listening to some music, reading, doing homework, it keeps my mind sharp but it is not about diving.”

During Knapton’s year at Rutgers, she nabbed a seventh-place finish on platform at the 2022 NCAA Championships, making her a five-time All-American in the event. This is especially remarkable because the Devaney Center Natatorium at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the place she trained for the first five years of her collegiate career, does not have a platform within its facilities.

Among her coaching duties, Chikina drove Knapton to either Iowa or Mizzou once or twice a month to practice on the 10-meter tower. Knapton didn’t see her lack of training as a disadvantage, it just required a different training mentality. Since she knew it would be her only opportunities of the month, it was imperative she put all of her focus and effort into the session. If she was consistently training on platform, Knapton wouldn’t be able to go at 100% every time because it would lead to exhaustion.

“I think there’s a certain beauty to that because going into competitions I would know that maybe I didn’t have the upper hand or I would go into competitions without a lot of practice and be more focused on what I was doing because I didn’t want to get hurt, I wanted to do the dive correctly,” Knapton said. “It just is a different way of training but I don’t think it necessarily put me at a disadvantage.”

Chikina stressed that not having a platform presented it’s own challenges, but they had to make it work because they were both committed to the goal.  Knapton was named Olympic alternate during the last trials in 2021 and is continuing to train in New Jersey for a shot at making the 2024 United States team for the Summer Games in Paris.

As she strives and dives for her Olympic dream, Knapton will hold fast to her learned techniques that have contributed to her success thus far. With her last year of nursing school in full swing, she will have plenty of homework to engage her mind between dives for the time being.  It’ll be after she graduates and has her degree, when Knapton will have to find something else to do while waiting for her name to be called.  Something like, just settling down with a good book.