The stadium thunders with noise — the shrill cry of referee whistles, the splash of dives and the murmurs of a couple hundred people resound through the open space. Leung stands on the diving board, feet angled, eyes flickering towards the depths of the pool. Today in the year of 2011 is Leung’s first competitive meet.
“For a small meet, it was a big meet for a lot,” Leung said. “I was just really nervous. I’ve never done diving under pressure before, so it was a whole new feeling.”
Emerging victorious with 2nd place at the meet, Leung diverted to join Fremont High School’s community pool dive team, but switched over to Santa Clara Diving in 2012 because it was the better option in comparison to the rest of her offers.
Within a year, Leung had climbed from the lowest group in the program to the most elite group in the program.
“It was really crazy,” Leung said. “I went through five different coaches within a few months and I didn’t have any stable friends because I just kept moving groups. I ended up in a group with 17, 18-year-olds.”
However, this age gap was never a hindrance in Leung’s diving career. In retrospect, Leung found that she has a preference for training with “more mature people” — people who are juniors, seniors and even older. This is because they have made Leung into the person she is today, as she spends six days a week and three hours a day with those people.
In terms of diving, competitions are split into three qualifications — regionals, zones and nationals. Listen to a podcast where Leung describes her experience winning nationals in 2013 in a 1-meter competition at Knoxville, Tennessee:
Seventh grader Leung is on the second dive of her first competitive meet, about to perform a reverse dive, or a hurdle. She strides down the length of the board — knees angled and toes pointed — then, she springs into the air with perfected technique. Then, it happens during mid-air: gravity plays against her favor and Leung tumbles towards the side of the board, landing with one leg on the board, and one leg dangling off. Before she can do anything, Leung topples into the water.
“[The injury] didn’t really hurt,” Leung said. “It was just like a shock that it happened. I came out of the water and everyone was staring at me. I couldn’t swim to the wall with my knee and they were all staring.”
Dislocated kneecaps are a systematic genetic in Leung’s bloodline. Leung’s entire family have had faulty knees. Leung was anticipating a knee injury at some point in her life, but she didn’t foresee such in such a traumatic way as she explains the injury was. Leung and her family thought that she would be back on the diving board for the next upcoming competition a month in the works.
In actuality, the recovery process took two years.
On the onset of her injury, Leung started physical therapy at Los Gatos Orthopedic and would go three times a week to strengthen her muscles. Leung was under the impression that her knee wouldn’t need to undergo surgery at all — she didn’t think that she had injured her knee that severely.
But when she was whizzed away on a hospital bed, the anesthesia grazing at her consciousness, she begged to differ.
In September of 2016, Leung underwent NPFL ligament reconstruction surgery for her dislocated knee at Palo Alto Medical Foundation.
The surgeon gets right to dissecting the faults of Leung’s knee. As the surgery comes to a close, Leung begins to regain consciousness. She blinks the dreariness away from her eyes, the anesthesia nagging at the back of her droopy eyelids, and locks eyes with her mother.
“They didn’t do [the surgery],” Leung’s mother said.
Allegedly, as the surgeon operated on Leung’s dislocated knee, they commented:
“This [treatment] isn’t going to be severe enough. We need something more.”
The surgeons wheeled Leung out of the hospital and redirected her to Stanford Hospital for a more “intense” surgery. Leung still had to undergo the recovery process for this “attempted” surgery, because the surgeon had still went into her knee.
“It was kind of crazy because in TV shows, surgeons are confident and somehow pull it off,” Leung said. “But to wake up, and my mom looked at me and she was like ‘They didn’t do it’ — it was crazy.”
After scheduling an appointment with the Stanford doctor, Leung was told that the surgery would be an NPFL reconstruction with a lateral release.
“On one side, the ligament is really loose so they put in a cadaver, a dead person’s ligament, in to strengthen that,” Leung said. “On the other side of the kneecap, there’s a ligament that’s overtightened, so they cut part of it so it balances out. That one did work — he did it.”
After six months of recovery, Leung was able to get back on her feet. Leung sat through re-runs of shows and binged lengthy series such as Grey’s Anatomy for weeks.
“I was on crutches and couldn’t do anything I wanted to,” Leung said. “Athletics has obviously been a bold part of my life. I had practice every day ... I would travel to state to state for competitions. To not be able to do that or even practice was really frustrating.”
“Basically my mindset was just like, ‘Forget all the rest of whatever I’ve done in diving. This is the new beginning,’” Leung said.
A fresh start. A clean slate. A new beginning. After coming back six months after the surgery, Leung dove into her sport with a new energy, a renewed determination. With her bottled up intensity, Leung entirely re-learned her dives.
Three months later, during October of 2017, it happened again.
She goes up for an inward double pike on a three meter and starts squatting on the board, stretching her muscles. As she bends and squats, she feels it — a searing jolt of pain spasming in her knee, a familiar sensation. The pain ebbs away and Leung’s knee gives out, sending Leung wobbling off the board and flying into the pool. Pulling herself out of the water and hobbling on one leg to her sports bag, Leung phones her mom, physical therapist and doctor.
“Interesting … this shouldn’t have happened,” they all remarked to Leung.
Leung was sent into surgery in December of 2017. From one doctor to the next, Leung visited five to six doctors to ensure she would receive the best treatment — surgery at age 13 was “bizarre.” Although they all said different things about Leung’s knee, the common commentary between them was:
“Wow. This case — your knee — should belong in a medical textbook.”
After taking x-rays on Leung’s knee, Leung’s doctor concluded that it could’ve just been a “slight relapse,” and it shouldn’t happen again. Leung would be back on physical therapy for two months, three times a week before returning to diving.
“I was ready for a new competition,” Leung said. “I was ready to see all the people from different clubs and states that I haven’t seen forever. It was just another roadblock.”
The surgery was done during Christmas weekend. This obstruction in her athletic career left Leung’s exasperated — her ambitions of a fresh start coupled with the reinvention of her diving career was setback once again.
“Everyone walks around saying, ‘Oh, are you okay? Do you need help?’ Which is really nice, I appreciate the thought,” Leung said “But it’s just like being noticed as the cripple, or the injured one. It’s tough because you’ve always been known as the athletic one, and your name changes to cripple.”
This new identification tempered with Leung’s patience — with the faults of her dislocated knee, Leung still can’t run like before to this day or play basketball.
“It was hard, very hard,” Leung said. “All I really wanted to do was get back to my normal life, be able to run and dive and play basketball — do whatever I want.”
At around three months, Leung could proficiently wobble with one crutch — it took a long time for Leung to recuperate her strength without any crutches. With the help of school accommodations — doctor’s notes, elevators and permission to come to class late — and her friends’ support, Leung’s recovery process was lightweight on her part.
Even after reaching full recovery, Leung was still hesitant with her diving technique — her form wasn’t executed with the same intensity. When trying to convince herself that it was a fresh start for her the nagging voice at the back of her mind murmured, “what if it happens again?”
Upon Leung’s initial return back to the diving board, Leung underwent drawbacks in her diving expertise — she could no longer perform the “most common” diving move, or a hurdle. According to Leung, a hurdle is when divers walk down the board and spring into the air with momentum and land on the board. Leung does the hurdle standing now because she doesn’t have to jump up to do the dive and strain her knee.
“[A hurdle is] just a lot less stress on the knee because the diving board is like a trampoline. It bends either with the way your body wants to go or if you sometimes end up wrong, then it will go against your body,” Leung said. “So it puts a lot of stress on your knees. Again, the tentativeness — me not wanting to do it.”
With the hurdle deducted from her full standing list of dives, Leung was concerned for her upcoming meets due to the hurdle being a diving fundamental — two to three points are deducted from total point accumulation if the hurdle isn’t listed. As competition season drew near, Leung found it crazy re-emerging back into a competitive playing field.
“I went back to all my friends again — it was just the inner fear of embarrassing yourself,” Leung said. “Because at that point, [I’m] competing at the same level as my friends from the other states who have been practicing this the entire time I’ve been sitting on a couch.”
With a short-term training time frame, Leung was petrified of embarrassment and had zero confidence in her diving as she eased back into gear.
“It was kind of like being ready to compete and getting ready for the blow of getting 50th at regionals, which is way lower than I would’ve [ranked] a long time ago,” Leung said.
Even now, thoughts of “what if” creep into her mind late at night.
What if I didn’t get injured? Where would I be now?
Two years. In two years, Leung could’ve learned ten new dives in a week. In two years, Leung’s diving career would’ve peaked. During the summer of Leung’s freshman year, Leung didn’t compete the way she wanted to for regionals — she could’ve cleaned up her dives, could’ve practiced better form and could’ve developed a better jump.
According to Leung, the normal difficulty for the 14 to 15 age range is around 15 points of difficulty — Leung had 12 or 13. That multiplies to a totaled score — high difficulty is a “huge boost.” Having a standing list with no hurdle, Leung didn’t set the bar high for herself.
“For zones I was like, ‘I’m happy, I’m content with this,’” Leung said. “This is only one competition before nationals — nationals is a really big deal. It’s very elite. It’s really only for the best of the country and zones was like — I was completely fine.”
As the competition started, Leung’s nerves ebbed away, which never happens. A lone thought channeled through her mind:
I’m okay with this … No matter how bad I do or how good I do, I will be okay.
Leung emerged victorious and progressed to nationals with one meter, which was “way above” her standards for her comeback — Leung received 8th place and top 10. In Clovis, California, Leung competed three meter at nationals, which is typically her best event. According to Leung, three meter is just one meter, but allots the diver more time to think and not rush the process.
“Three meter, I competed again — all my best dives I’ve done in a long time, and I fell short of nationals by two points,” Leung said. “I felt very sad. I had that one meter, I did my best and I made it. At three meter, I did all my dives better than all the rest of the girls who beat me — I knew that. But the difficulty and the standing again came back to bite me.”
Starting off diving with 17 and 18-year-olds when she was 11, Leung saw that everyone dissented their high school teams in comparison to their club team. According to Leung, there were always one to two people with no experience and no boards — the ones who stooped for P.E. credits.
“I came into high school diving thinking, ‘Oh whatever, it’s a bunch of amateurs just wanting to dive,’” Leung said.
However, Leung’s freshman season was nothing like she expected. The people, the atmosphere and the coach all emitted a friendly aura. Leung’s school diving coach is one of the best people she knows. Through devoting his own time and money, and waking up at 3:30 for his job, Leung’s coach made the diving experience better by tenfold.
“To be able to hear what I did when I was 11, hearing like, ‘Oh the coaches don’t matter,’” Leung said. “Going to our coach and being like, ‘Wow, he really cares.’”
For Leung, the highlight of the freshman season was the team bonding hosted at Leung’s coach’s house. The team ate food, watched movies and sat around a bonfire reflecting on their favorite moments of the season. According to Leung’s coach, last year was the most family-like team he’s had in all his years of coaching at MVHS.
“I think it was crazy because that moment, [I realized] that everyone had their own moments in the season where they really enjoyed it,” Leung said.
Listen to the podcast below to hear an anecdote of Leung’s freshman club meet at Atlanta, Georgia, where she made it to nationals and competed 1-meter:
Leung is back on MVHS’s diving team, this time as co-captain. Going into the season, Leung didn’t have as high of expectations because all the seniors graduated — the “family-like piece” was gone. To Leung, recreating that family feeling was more fun that the actual diving in itself — diving is one of the “hardest mental sports.”
“Jumping off of things and doing a bunch of flips into a pool of water is really scary,” Leung said. “It’s scary because you might hit the board, you might belly flop, you might back flop — there’s so many different scenarios in which things can go wrong.”
Leung wants to build a functional support system on the team. To do that, she has been trying to reinforce cheering in the team — cheering as loudly for the people who need it.
“As a person who’s been diving for eight years, I can tell when somebody is in their head and really worried,” Leung said. “For me, my responsibility as captain is to try to help them feel better. Take my experience and just try to give them advice and help them.”
The 11-year-old Leung’s competitive aura was insatiable — arch nemeses and elite rankings all continued to stimulate Leung’s athletic ardor at the time. After the injuries, relapses and recoveries, Leung sees diving in a different light.
“I don’t really care about the competitions anymore,” Leung said. “Versus comparing myself to other people is mainly just a personal growth. I want to keep learning dives and seeing if I can get that hurdle down. If I can get higher in the competition it doesn’t matter who I beat.”
Diving has made Leung more patient with herself, especially when it came to the injuries. She’s learned to not take things for granted and be more appreciative of things because of how easily they can slip out of her grasp.
“[Diving has] taught me to not crack under pressure, especially with the stage of nationals and all that I’ve been diving under,” Leung said. “It’s one person a dive, one person an event, one person goes at a time. All eyes are on you.”