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Gay athlete went from national champion gymnast to college diving team captain

Simon Carne persevered in learning a new sport.

Drexel University diver Simon Carne stands on the 1-meter springboard at the Daskalakis Athletic Center on Drexel’s campus in Philadelphia.
Erik Hall

Standing less than 10 feet off the ground, Simon Carne had something to conquer his first day of diving practice at Drexel University — the 3-meter springboard.

Carne had dabbled in diving since he was 8 years old, but he never dove off anything higher than a 1-meter springboard. Now, diving was his full-time sport, and getting comfortable jumping — diving would come later — from the 3-meter springboard provided his first obstacle.

“Three-meter just seems so much higher when you’re up there,” Carne said. “You’re like, ‘Alright, this is kind of scary.’ … The scariest part for me [of 3-meter springboard] is like the fear of just falling off the board before I got to the end.”

That first day of diving practice, the 5-foot-7, 155-pound Carne carefully walked to the end of the board. He started by stepping off the board, and with each attempt that first day, Carne pressed harder on the springboard. By the end of that first practice, he felt he was giving 100-percent effort.

“Once I jumped off of it once, I was like, ‘Alright, this isn’t that bad,” Carne said.

Carne, who is gay, possessed significant athletic accomplishments when he arrived at Drexel three years ago, but they weren’t in diving.

He won two USA Gymnastics national titles, but it wasn’t for the type of gymnastics Simone Biles and Sam Mikulak perform. Carne specialized in trampoline and tumbling, which are not part of NCAA gymnastics.

Carne wanted to be on a varsity team in college. So, after an elite trampoline and tumbling career through high school, he learned to dive as a member of the Drexel University men’s swimming and diving team.

“I’ve been an athlete my entire life,” said Carne, now a Drexel senior facing the end of his diving career. “I just honestly don’t know how to live my life without being an athlete. I don’t know how to be a person without being an athlete. I feel like it’s a part of me that I don’t want to take away anytime soon.”

Simon Carne approaches the water on a dive at the Daskalakis Athletic Center pool on Drexel University’s campus in Philadelphia.
Drexel Athletics

From McD’s to a Dragon

When Simon Carne was 3 years old, his parents, Steven and Carolyn Carne, took him and his brother, Tim, to McDonald’s.

In addition to Happy Meals, Simon and Tim crawled into the ball pit and started doing front flips. The boys’ natural inclination to spin in the air inspired Carolyn to enroll both boys in their first gymnastics class.

“When I was younger, I never thought that I was that good because my brother was older than me and better than me,” said Simon Carne, who grew up in the Washington, D.C., suburb of Bethesda, Maryland. “It was always his thing. I don’t know when it switched over, but eventually, it just became my thing, too.”

In 2004 at age 7, Simon qualified for his first trampoline and tumbling USA Gymnastics national championship. He placed for the first time in 2008.

At 13 years old in 2010, he won the USA Gymnastics double mini national title for Level 10, and in 2013 at age 16, he won the USA Gymnastics trampoline national title for Level 10.

“I don’t think anyone was expecting it,” Carne said of his first national title. “I remember walking out of the staging area and into the stands, and all my teammates and my parents and all the other parents on the team, they all ran up to me and gave me a big hug. So, that was crazy. It felt pretty gratifying.”

Also in the summer of 2010, just before starting high school, Carne started coming out as gay. The first person he told was his best friend, Charlotte Fitterman, but he couldn’t even tell her. He typed in his phone, “I think I might be gay,” and he showed it to her.

Fitterman was relieved. Carne had texted her asking to immediately tell her something in person, and they met halfway between their houses, which were a couple minutes’ walk apart.

“No one was ever shocked when I told them [about being gay],” Carne said. “I grew up in Bethesda, Maryland — extremely liberal. I didn’t have any problems in high school.”

Athletically in high school, Carne joined the Walt Whitman High School’s swimming and diving team. The team needed boys to dive, and Carne could flip in the air off a board. But on most dives, he was not willing to go head first. He feared interfering with the muscle memory of landing feet first in tumbling.

Practicing diving once a week, Carne learned basic head-first dives, and he became one of Maryland’s best high school divers with mostly complex feet-first dives.

“Some of the parents would get mad that I was able to do feet-first dives and still win, because they thought that wasn’t real diving and that it wasn’t fair to the other athletes,” Carne said.

Due to conflicts with tumbling, he only competed at the Maryland high school state diving meet as a freshman and junior, and he finished fifth as a junior. He showed enough to Drexel’s diving coach at the time, Katryn Valladares, that she recruited him to the private university in Philadelphia.

“I wanted to be a D1 athlete, and I couldn’t be a D1 athlete with trampoline,” Carne said of diving in college.

College acclimation

When he completed his final trampoline and tumbling competition at the 2014 national meet, Carne said he was “balling.” This was the summer after his senior year of high school, and it was time to focus on diving as he headed to Drexel.

He enjoyed a pleasant freshman year. He progressed through the season, learning to use the 3-meter springboard and dive head first. His freshman season finished with eighth-place finishes on 1- and 3-meter springboard at the 2015 Colonial Athletic Association Championships.

But Valladares left as Drexel’s diving coach after Carne’s freshman season.

“Freshman year, I was just so fueled off of excitement and determination that I think that’s what kind of carried me through my freshman year,” Carne said. “Sophomore year, the excitement kind of died down. … That was really hard. There were a lot of days sophomore year where I wanted to quit.

Carne’s top scores his sophomore year didn’t match his best results from freshman year, and he didn’t feel comfortable talking to the new coach, Emily Howard, about how emotional it felt to regress.

“I would come home from practice, and I would just be so frustrated that I was in tears,” said Carne, who came back from practice in tears every day some weeks and on a good week, two to three days. “That whole sophomore year, it just wasn’t a good year.”

There was light at the end of the season. At the 2016 CAA Championships, Carne improved to seventh on 3-meter springboard, despite scoring two points less than the previous year, and on 1-meter, he finished fifth and scored 10 points better than as a freshman.

For his junior year, Carne was the Drexel Dragons’ top returning men’s diver, and he described his 2016-17 season as “a huge bounce back.”

“A big part of that was finally opening up to Emily a little bit more and getting more comfortable with her,” Carne said. “I still have bad days. … Everybody has bad days. … The biggest thing was being able to control and not let those bad days carry over.”

Simon Carne stands on the 3-meter springboard at Daskalakis Athletic Center on the Drexel University campus in Philadelphia.
Erik Hall

Springboard reverse

One of the best days of Carne’s junior season came at the 2017 CAA Championships.

His third dive on 3-meter springboard was a reverse 2 1/2 somersault tuck. By now, Carne mastered going head first into the water.

But not the reverse, where divers spin their head back toward the board as they start the dive.

Carne said he tried one reverse dive in competition before college, and it went so bad that he never did one again until at Drexel.

“Reverses are probably the hardest for me just because that’s the one that I’m most scared of,” Carne said. “Every time I did it, even in practice, I was scared all the way up to CAA’s. It’s just really a mentally challenging dive for me.”

Carne put the reverse dive third on his list at CAA’s because he thinks the No. 3 is lucky.

His scariest dive scored 53.2 points, his second highest score of the entire championship.

“After I nailed my reverse dive, it gave me so much confidence,” Carne said. “I was on fire. ... I was so pumped.”

The reverse dive propelled Carne to a second-place finish on 3-meter springboard at CAA’s with 309.6 points, a career-high score. He also took fourth on 1-meter with 258.25 points.

“He is a very pretty diver for a guy,” said Anthony Musciano, a Drexel sophomore diver. “His toes are always pointed, and his legs are always together, and he stays so tight in the air. … That’s why I like to watch him so much.”

Now as a senior, Carne is a Drexel team captain and dreading the end of his diving career.

“I came so far from being a freshman — who didn’t know anything, who had never been on 3-meter before — to getting second place at CAA’s,” Carne said. “I will cherish that and see it as a challenge that I overcame. I’ll probably cry when it’s my last dive.”

Simon Carne, 21, is a senior at Drexel University and is scheduled to graduate with a bachelor’s of science in health science. He can be reached on Instagram @Simon_Carne and by email at simonc4114@gmail.com

Erik Hall is a member of the Associated Press Sports Editors and the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association. He can be reached on Facebook, Twitter @HallErik, or by email at hallerik7@gmail.com