Coach swims to the top

Nick Rodionoff knows everything there is to know about diving. And there are many ways to dive: Front dives, somersaults, backward dives, reverse dives, inward dives and twisting dives are all part of the sport.

His expertise has led him to be the women’s head diving coach for the past 15 years at Pepperdine University. Now, he has recently been selected to also be the head coach for the women’s swim team.

Rodionoff, a Malibu resident since 1972, previous to being the women’s head diving coach, worked with the men’s diving program for 11 years. When he interviewed for his first coaching position at Pepperdine, the first question he was asked was about values, which he strongly believes in.

“If you’re coaching to win at any cost, that can be destructive,” he said.

That is why he decided to come to Pepperdine from UCLA where he had coached for 10 years before.

“The best part of my job is that I deal with people who care about one another,” he said. “The student population is much smaller and you get a chance to know people.”

Though he was a diver in college and aimed for a physical education major, most of Rodionoff’s personal experience as a diver was self-taught. But he considers this an asset since he learned first-hand what mistakes to avoid and he can now impart that knowledge to his students.

“Divers don’t usually have a coach, so I took a lot of hard smacks and I learned from that,” he said.

“Diving is a very patient sport,” said Rodionoff. “You have to take your time and be safe, you can’t rush it, it’s a balance and body control sport.”

As he was talking about the sport he loves, three students were working on their diving techniques. The youngest, Kristen Whittemore, 13, was practicing a “line up.” This skill involves getting in the water without making any splashes. Judges usually give higher scores for that.

“My mom saw stuff about Nick in the newspaper,” explained Whittemore, a swimmer who has been diving for two months.

Junior High swimmers, who were coached by Rodionoff, do well in the Junior Lifeguard program, she said, emphasizing the respect she has for her coach.

Though it may look like divers are prone to getting hurt easily because of the multiple acrobatics they have to learn, Rodionoff said that there has been only one accident in the 25 years he has coached. A student hit the board, but she was okay afterwards.

To avoid such accidents, Rodionoff said, as far as safety goes, he considers himself strict.

“Diving is a pretty individual sport,” he said.

Currently, six women are on the Pepperdine team that Rodionoff now heads. They practice twice a day for about three hours each day. He also coaches another group of six children who practice four times a week in the morning and twice weekly in the afternoons.

Because these athletes have to really trust their coach, Rodionoff said they develop a special relationship.

Amy Lehman, 20, is a Pepperdine student who benefits from Rodionoff’s coaching experience.

“As a swimmer and diver I think he is very understanding of the athletes,” she said. “He gets to know them personally and understands their point of view.”

Tiffany Linder, 15, has been diving for five years.

“I have been with Nick the whole time,” she said.

Linder dives at Viewpoint High where she won a championship in the California Interscholastic Federation for California High School students.

“I like it because he is not forceful, if you’re not ready he doesn’t make you do a dive,” said Linder, who believes that Rodionoff is an “all-around coach.”

“I coached her dad at Birmingham,” explained Rodionoff, as he talked about Linder.

All three divers who were present during the interview are also swimmers.

“This is pretty unique in this age of specialization,” said the coach.

Rodionoff also coaches at the Malibu Aquatics Club with his wife, Carrie. But this will be his last month since the new promotion will take up all his time. Carrie is also involved with the sport. She was a diving coach at Santa Monica High School and still teaches peer-helping classes there.

“I’ll drag her over here to help me,” he said. “She is a very good communicator.”

Aside from coaching, Rodionoff also enjoys photography. He has taken photos for a local newspaper in the past and now he enjoys taking pictures of seascapes in Malibu. There is an overabundance of surf and ocean photography already, so Rodionoff specializes in capturing pictures of things that people in Malibu can relate to.

His big goal is photographing the art show every year, he said.

During his long career as a swimming and diving coach, Rodionoff has been successful enough to send a few of his pupils to the Olympics where they set records.

Sue Gossick, an Encino Swim School student, went to the Olympics in 1964 and 1968. Cindy Schilling won a National Championship in swimming and broke a world record in a swim relay team competition.

Though he has done this for many years, Rodionoff is not about to give up what he loves.

“I’m having too much fun,” he said.

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The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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