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The Daily Tar Heel

'An athlete perspective': Former UNC diving standout returns to program as graduate assistant

UNC SWIMMING AND DIVING

Anton Down-Jenkins dives during a meet against Virginia in Koury Natatorium on Friday, January 22, 2021.
Photo Courtesy of Jeff Camarati. 

Anton Down-Jenkins was just 15 years old when he was first called “coach” by his club diving team in New Zealand. 

Even as a teenager, he loved passing along his knowledge and volunteered as a coach with his club whenever he could.

In the nine years since then, the legendary UNC diver has competed in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, won back-to-back ACC Diver of the Year honors and collected three gold medals at the ACC championships.

This season, Down-Jenkins has returned to the program as a graduate assistant for the 2023-24 diving season.Down-Jenkins will assist head coach Yadiel Gamboa by watching the trampoline and dry board stations while also shooting video recordings of divers. Aside from his specific duties, his firsthand experiences as a competitive diver have helped him make deeper connections with the players.

“It really is just an extra set of ears, eyes, hands for coach Gamboa and keeping the energy good and making sure everyone’s happy," he said. "Just being here whenever I can be."

'Support system'

Picking up the sport when he was 10 years old, Down-Jenkins knew that New Zealand’s lack of diving opportunities would require talks with college programs abroad if he wanted to continue the sport at a high level.

Finding his way into the collegiate diving scene at the University of South Carolina, Down-Jenkins quickly became a perennial contender in the NCAA Championships. However, at regional competitions, he couldn’t help but notice the family-like dynamic and strong culture in Chapel Hill.

"A big part of why I wanted to transfer was because I wasn’t having fun diving and competing,” Down-Jenkins said. “And then coming here, [Gamboa] really wants us to work hard, do what we have to do; but if we’re not enjoying it along the way, what’s the point?”

Gamboa’s emphasis on enjoying the sport helped propel Down-Jenkins to the 2020 Olympic Games.

Down-Jenkins said he quickly succumbed to pressure, self-doubt and "insane imposter syndrome," in Tokyo. With millions watching him compete on TV, he struggled. 

“I don’t believe that I should've been there," he said. "And [Coach Gamboa] was really that support system for me."

Down-Jenkins recalls these struggles, and how Gamboa helped him through, as playing a crucial role in developing his own approach to coaching. 

“He did the best he could do with how stressed I was and just told me to trust the process," Down-Jenkins said. "We've been through it, put in the work, and I think we both kind of knew that when I got on the board as competition started I'd be fine."

'He understands what's going on'

Through his senior and fifth-year seasons, Down-Jenkins volunteered to coach for the club diving team. He quickly realized coaching was a viable option for his continued involvement in the Tar Heel program.

“I really do love passing on my knowledge and because the feeling of diving is so fresh,” he said. “I feel like it lets me provide an athlete perspective through the coaching role.”

Senior Aranza Vazquez, a national champion on the UNC women’s dive team and fellow Olympian, said she appreciates having a coach with recent diving experience.

“You can tell he knows what we feel when we’re in the pool,” she said, later adding, “So you can actually tell that he understands what's going on.”

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Beyond his stint as a volunteer club coach, Gamboa saw flashes of coaching potential in Down-Jenkins as he approached the end of his UNC career. Be it in practices or at competitions, Gamboa said Down-Jenkins was "always giving advice" to his teammates.

Simply put, it was obvious that he "cares a lot."

“Even if he’s not having a good day, he’s got a smile and gets a smile out of someone else," Gamboa said, later adding, "As soon as he [started] on the pool deck, he is very good with that.” 

'I'm just stoked'

During a brief meeting in August, Down-Jenkins and Gamboa decided it was best for Down-Jenkins to forgo the Paris 2024 Olympic circuit and focus on his future outside of the pool.

As a graduate student in UNC's exercise and sports science program, Down-Jenkins’ transition into a coaching role was his main priority amidst a busy schedule this semester.

Despite coaching several of his former teammates, Down-Jenkins said his new role isn't "weird or awkward." The coach treats his position as a level playing field with his athletes, giving them a sense of autonomy in their training. 

Overall, this team chemistry has propelled the UNC swim and dive program to a 3-0 men’s and 2-0-1 women’s record in dual meets to start the season. Additionally, Vazquez has continued to dominate, sweeping the springboard events against South Carolina on Nov. 3. 

As the season progresses, Down-Jenkins is thrilled to contribute to the same energy and family-oriented atmosphere that initially drew him to UNC.

I’m just stoked that I get to continue being a part of [the team] and help all of the current divers and divers that are going to join our team in the future to have an amazing experience here [like] I did.”

@moiramartin010

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com