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December 8, 2009

Degree of Difficulty - Mikey McDonald

By: Matt Kovatch

Mikey McDonald will finish his career as the best diver in Tech history, but it may have never happened without a coincidental convergence with a coach from his past.

The first thing you notice about Mikey McDonald when he walks into a room is the Virginia Tech cap on his head, spun backwards, with the cartoon-like bust of the HokieBird staring you right in the eye.

With his tousled hair and baggy Virginia Tech sweat suit, the 5-foot-6 senior simply resembles an average college student, one who proudly shows his school pride. He does nothing to dissuade you from that notion when he leaves the room either– quickly exclaiming “Go Hokies!” as he walks out the door.

By all accounts, including his own, McDonald is one of the biggest Virginia Tech fans you will meet. But unlike the others, he gets to show his pride in a very different way.

That’s because beneath that cap and under that sweat suit, you will find one of the best athletes who has walked the Blacksburg campus in recent years. But you won’t see McDonald delivering hits on the football field or draining jumpers on the basketball court. Rather, head over to War Memorial Hall, and that’s where you’ll find McDonald hurtling himself off the diving boards and into the pool.

Most of his fellow students probably wouldn’t know it if he were sitting right next to them in a lecture hall, but McDonald is approaching the end of a diving career in which he has completely rewritten the record books and done things that no other Virginia Tech diver has done before.

The Virginia Tech diving program is what it is today largely because of this happy-go-lucky kid from northern Virginia, his unparalleled passion for his sport and his school and his unique relationship with his coach. And it all began long before he ever thought of donning that backwards cap.

Mikey McDonald was born and raised in Annandale, a suburb of Washington, D.C., and spent his early years with his single mother, Jane. Like most kids, he passed the summers splashing around in the pool, but one day, the summer league coach at that pool asked young Mikey if he would like to take up diving. Mikey, who guesses that he was 6 or 7 at the time, said no. But the coach was persistent, and after a few weeks of saying no, Mikey finally said yes. He tried it, loved it and never stopped since.

He began taking lessons, and once he was good enough, he joined a club team that was coached by, among others, longtime diving professional Roland McDonald. Roland, who is currently in his 11th season as the diving coach at George Mason University, was an All-American diver at Michigan State in the mid-80s and has spent many years as coach of various nationally ranked club diving teams. His résumé also includes a stint in which he performed stunt, springboard, comedy and high diving routines at parks and festivals around the world. Naturally, Mikey liked him.

“He was awesome,” Mikey remembered. “We got along great. We just clicked. We had a good chemistry and I trusted him and that’s a good thing when you’re looking for a coach.”

While Mikey enjoyed working with Roland, there was someone else who looked forward to the weekly lessons between the two – Mikey’s mom.

“It was actually kind of funny,” Mikey laughed. “That’s how my mom and Roland met, because she was driving me there every Saturday. About a month or two into it, you could tell they were kind of hitting it off.”

Mikey’s new coach soon became his new stepdad, as Roland and Jane got married. All the while, Mikey proved to be a natural at his new sport, and he went on to win multiple junior national and international championships during his teenage years. But as is the case with most teenagers, there came a time when Mikey got a little tired of listening to his parents. The fact that he was also diving for Roland made it worse, and Mikey soon became defiant.

“It got a little heated sometimes,” Mikey said of training and competing with Roland. “It’s kind of tough when your stepdad is coaching you. He’d be like, ‘Do this.’ And I’d be like, ‘No.’ I had no problem saying no to him.”

Enter Ron Piemonte. He’s now Virginia Tech’s head diving coach, but back then, he was merely an acquaintance to the McDonalds in the close-knit diving community. Like Roland, Piemonte was also a very successful club coach for a very long time. During Mikey’s time diving with Roland, his club teams would routinely travel down to Moultrie, Ga., where Piemonte coached a nationally ranked team at Moss Farms, to train for a couple of weeks at a time.

“It’s always good to get different perspectives on your dives,” Mikey said. “So I usually trained with Ron a lot while I was there, and we got to be pretty close.”

One year, Mikey and Roland were in Moultrie for a competition, and the tension between the two was particularly high.

“I coach my own kids, and sometimes there are challenges to that,” Piemonte said. “I think that Roland and Mikey were just at that point in their development where things weren’t grooving. Roland came up to me at that competition and said, ‘I would really appreciate it if you would coach Mikey today. I just think that he needs to hear something different from somebody else.’”

Piemonte agreed, and as he put it, Mikey ended up diving “awesome.”

“I dove really well at that meet, and I feel like Ron did a lot to help me there,” Mikey remembered. “Little things that he told me really made a big difference, and that really stuck in my head.”

Neither Piemonte nor Mikey thought much of it at the time as the McDonalds headed back home, but little did either know how important that experience would turn out to be.

Mikey McDonald dove head first into his training at Tech, and it's paid off in the form of four honorable-mention All-America nods.

McDonald’s high school years soon began to wind down, and with that came the chore of selecting a college at which to continue his diving career. Miami had long been the No. 1 choice in his mind, and he was ready to commit. But, according to him, the Hurricanes were dragging their feet.

“Miami only had a certain number of scholarships, and one of them was promised to another guy,” McDonald explained. “But it all depended on whether he got into school. They said if he didn’t get in, then I would get the scholarship. But it came to the point where I couldn’t wait anymore, so I needed to start looking elsewhere.”

Unbeknownst to McDonald, down in Moultrie, Piemonte was also contemplating a change.

“As a successful club coach, you get a lot of phone calls from people about what college coaching jobs have opened up,” Piemonte said. “One call happened to come in at the time when I was just sitting there thinking that I was ready for a change. I had coached college before, and I was thinking how I would love to get back into that scene. All of the sudden, a phone call came across my desk and the person said, ‘Hey, Virginia Tech is looking for a diving coach. Do you know anyone who is interested?’ For the first time, I said, ‘Well, maybe I’m interested.’”

Enter Ned Skinner. Now in his 12th year as the man at the helm of Tech’s swimming and diving program, Skinner was, at the time, in a conundrum. His diving coach had just moved on, so he was faced with the task of not only finding a new one, but also hitting the recruiting trail.

Skinner didn’t know Piemonte at all, but he came very highly recommended by all of Skinner’s contacts within the ranks.

“I really just went on a lot of word of mouth,” Skinner said about courting Piemonte. “We ended up talking multiple times and I had a really good connection with him, and we basically came to terms for him to take the job before we ever actually met.”

However, Skinner did know Roland very well, and he soon found out about Mikey’s failure to sign with Miami. Though it was late in the game, McDonald had yet to be picked up by any other suitors for two reasons. First of all, he did not perform well as a senior.

“I was terrible,” McDonald admitted. “I was getting burnt out, and I was awful.”

Secondly, and partly because of that, many coaches were likely scared away from McDonald because they thought he may have already peaked.

“Because Mikey was such a sensational child diver, there may have been a lot of coaches who felt that his best diving was behind him,” Piemonte estimated. “They may have thought he was done.”

Though Piemonte had worked with McDonald in the past, he had no idea what was going on with his college search.

“I didn’t know any of that stuff at that point,” Piemonte said. “I was way more consumed with picking up and moving my family, selling a house and all of those other logistics to really worry where Mikey McDonald was going to school.”

But Skinner’s work as the middle man throughout the process soon paid dividends. It didn’t take him long to convince McDonald to visit Blacksburg once he revealed his choices to take over the diving program.

“Mikey said his decision would really depend on who ended up being our head diving coach,” Skinner recalled. “But once I told him my list of finalists, he said, ‘Just for the record, I’ve known Ron for 10 years, and he’s fantastic. I’ll tell you right now, if Ron was the head diving coach, I’d be a Hokie.’”

Done and done. McDonald and Piemonte were both on board once they learned of their potential reuniting, and they were about to take Tech’s diving program to new heights.

That kid whom Miami preferred over McDonald ended up not getting into school, but McDonald never regretted his decision to move on – “This is the place for me,” he said.

So McDonald and Piemonte plowed full steam ahead in their first year with Skinner and the Hokies. Fueled by the pair’s unrelenting work ethic and positive attitude, Mikey broke school records and scored at the ACC Championships as a freshman before becoming the first Tech diver to compete at the NCAA Championships as a sophomore. He repeated that feat last year as a junior when he earned honorable mention All-America nods in two events for the second consecutive season. Already the most successful diver in Hokie history, he has one more chance to achieve his goal of reaching the NCAA finals in both the 1- and 3-meter events. And he credits it all to Piemonte and Virginia Tech.

“Once I got here and started working with Ron, I started loving the sport again,” McDonald said. “I just like how positive he is and the way he goes about coaching you. I’m not very good with negativity, and Ron is never negative.”

Piemonte returned the compliment.

“I don’t think there is ever a day that he does not come in with a smile on his face,” Piemonte said. “He’s just a great presence to have around for your environment. He makes it fun. It’s very easy to get beat down when you train as hard as our team does, so it’s nice to have a leader like Mikey who is always up for the cause. He’s helped foster the environment. I’ve been fortunate to come into this program, with Mikey on the team helping to set the bar where it should be.”

Of course, it didn’t hurt that McDonald wasted no time getting immersed in the culture of Tech athletics, quickly becoming addicted to Hokie football and basketball.

“Mikey is the epitome of a Hokie,” Piemonte said. “He’s probably the most diehard Virginia Tech football fan I’ve ever met in my entire life, and it’s almost to the point of it being a distraction. He eats, breathes and sleeps Virginia Tech athletics.”

“When Virginia Tech football loses, Mikey is sad for days,” Skinner joked. “He goes to every men’s basketball game religiously, and when they lose, he is sad for days. He is a Hokie through and through. He’s really proud to be part of Virginia Tech.”

And that’s what’s kept McDonald so successful throughout his career – he wants to hold up his end of the bargain.

“All of Mikey’s success has been motivated and driven by him wanting to represent Virginia Tech to the best of his ability,” Piemonte said. “That’s been important to him for his whole career. He loves to be a part of it, and he loves to win for Virginia Tech.”

Like many seniors, McDonald isn’t ready for his time in Blacksburg to end. But, when it does, his legacy will have already been firmly cemented.

“If he quit right now and walked away, he is the best diver in the program’s history, period,” Skinner declared. “We just want to enjoy our last year with him and to respect what he’s done for us.”

Even if all he ever truly wanted to do was be a Hokie.