Olympic hopefuls training with Penn State diving coach

Diver Amanda Burke is also training with Ceppa and Nees in order to try to make the Olympics.
Diver Amanda Burke is also training with Ceppa and Nees in order to try to make the Olympics. CDT photo

Two USA Diving national champions from Bucks County are training at Penn State in the hope that their hard work will carry them to the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

Having gone to high schools 16 miles apart and then to different universities, Zac Nees and Amanda Burke have made their way to Penn State for the same reason — Penn State diving coach Dennis Ceppa.

The Olympic hopefuls grew up in Bucks County outside of Philadelphia. Nees, 24 attended North Penn High School and graduated in 2009. Burke, 27 went to William Tennent High School and graduated in 2005.

Burke went on to dive at Rider University, where she built a relationship with Ceppa, who coached there. Ceppa recruited Nees to dive at Rider, but he took a scholarship at Indiana University before transferring to the University of Miami in his senior year.

“All of my athletes are like family to me. These two are some of my closest,” said Ceppa. “I want nothing more than to do everything I can to see them reach their goals.”

Nees swam on his summer swimming team from age 4 until 13. He began diving at 14. His influence was his best friend’s sister, the diving coach at his summer swim club.

“She talked me into coming out for tryouts and I stuck with it ever since,” Nees said.

Burke had no such inspiration. She started learning to dive around age 6 but didn’t take it seriously until she started diving in college.

After their college careers, Nees and Burke joined the USA Diving program and began competing in U.S. national championships. The strongest form of diving for both is synchro, officially called synchronized diving.

In synchro, two divers of the same gender perform identical moves at the same time. To judge synchro, officials drop the two lowest and two highest scores; the three remaining scores are added and multiplied by the difficulty rating of each dive.

Burke, at 4-foot-11 and 113 pounds, and Nees, at 5-foot-8 and 160 pounds, are senior national champions in the 3-meter springboard synchro dive, putting them into consideration for the 2016 Summer Olympics. Nees is the current national champion at his event. Burke held her title last year.

Burke started training at Penn State in September 2013; Nees came last July. They practice diving twice a day, six days a week, alongside the Penn State diving team. They do weight training three times a week.

They are not training with their synchro partners right now. Burke is the diving partner of Ariel Rittenhouse, out of California, who trains at Stanford University. Nees’s partner is Cory Bowersox, a University of Texas student.

Their relationship with Ceppa is so strong that the three share his three-bedroom townhouse.

Living with Ceppa minimizes the divers’ expenses so they can focus on diving and the Olympics.

“Both of them are sacrificing a lot to continue to reaching for their goals. They’re putting their professional lives on hold,” said Ceppa. “They constantly talk about how their friends are getting jobs, promotions and even married, as they are training non-stop.”

Athletes in other countries often are funded by their government, and it’s considered their job to train and compete. U.S. amateur athletes are not in that situation.

To make the Olympics in diving, competitors have to qualify at the Olympic trials by placing in the top two individually or by winning the synchronized diving event. The Olympic trials is a single competition that will take place in June 2016 in Indianapolis.

When Nees and Burke are not training they relax, watch TV or read. They will occasionally head downtown to the bars for a few drinks. Over long breaks, they said, they love to head home to catch up with family and friends because they haven’t spent much time with them in recent years.

“I haven’t lived at some since 2006, so I haven’t been around my good friends from high school and that’s a big sacrifice,” said Burke. “So every time I go home it’s a giant reunion.”

At Penn State. Burke is a volunteer diving coach, helping the synchronized divers, and Nees is seeking a temporary job anywhere on campus. They said they like the way Penn State takes care of their athletes, including having a psychologist, a nutritionist and well-trained strength and conditioning coaches.

Both divers have goals for after the Olympics. They would love to work as college diving coaches but think it would take too long to work up the ranks. Nees has a degree in computer science and plans on exploring that field after August of 2016. Burke has a degree in communications and wants to work for USA Diving’s public relations office.

Meanwhile, their focus remains success in Indianapolis next year and a trip to Rio.