DURHAM, N.C. – Freshman diver Mackenzie Willborn recently returned from Cuba, where she won a silver medal for the United States at the 2015 Junior Pan American Championships. Willborn also kicked off her collegiate career by taking first in women’s 3-meter diving earlier this month against Pittsburgh. GoDuke.com recently caught up with the Flower Mound, Texas native to learn more about her transition to collegiate diving.
GoDuke.com: What attracted you come to Duke and to dive for head diving coach Nunzio Esposto?
Mackenzie Willborn: I have been interested in Duke for a while because the academics and athletics are a great balance. I really didn’t know a lot about Nunzio coming in, but the year I was being recruited, he came to Nationals with some of his club kids and I was blown away because they did so well. Nunzio reminded me a lot of my coach back home and that’s kind of what really got me interested, and it worked out really well with him. I love diving with him.
GoDuke.com: You have a pretty big group of divers at Duke this year – how has that helped you transition to the collegiate level?
MW: I love the team so much. I come from a club team that is a bunch of younger divers, so the switch was pretty different, but I love all the girls and also the three freshmen boys that we have. They’re all really great, they all work hard and we get along really well in and out of the pool.
GoDuke.com: What was it like to earn a first-place finish at your first collegiate meet?
MW: It’s really awesome! We have been working really hard. We started getting our lists together really early, so I think that helped a lot. And I think it helped me feel a lot more comfortable here. I loved coming in as a part of the diving team because diving is something that I’m so comfortable with back home. College is such a different transition and it helped to have something that I’m comfortable with. It was awesome to start out really well and to show that my work so far has paid off.
GoDuke.com: Can you talk about the freshman class as a whole? You guys have a lot of talent both in swimming and diving – what has the bonding been like with them?
MW: The freshman class is awesome. I love every single one of them. The Duke program is good about having the divers and swimmers really connect, whereas some schools aren’t connected in that way. We’re definitely really close. I remember the first day when we all moved in, there was an instant connection. It’s great to have such talent on the swimming side as well because it’s easy for us to get along when we all have the same goals, the same work ethic. It really helps us and our group dynamic.
GoDuke.com: How long have you been diving?
MW: I started diving my freshman year of high school, and I did gymnastics for 10 years before that. I was really into gymnastics, and then I got injured so my mom said, “Well, let’s try diving.” I was totally against it at first. But one of my friends quit gymnastics around the same time as I did, and we started diving together, so that’s kind of how I got into it.
GoDuke.com: You had pretty extensive experience in Juniors – can you talk about how that has helped you prepare for collegiate diving?
MW: Juniors diving is a lot of fun, and my club coach was really awesome in helping me build the mental aspect of the sport. Competing is one of my favorite things, I love to compete. Using my competitions there has helped me to learn each time, and prepare for competitions in the future.
GoDuke.com: Having recently returned from Junior Pan Ams, can you talk about what it’s like to represent Team USA?
MW: It’s really awesome. I’ve been to a couple of international competitions and it’s just a really great atmosphere. It’s cool to be able to connect with people from other countries through the common interest of just loving the same sport, and just having all the divers get along so well. I really liked being able to represent the U.S., and it’s just crazy to see how much you have in common with other divers.
GoDuke.com: What’s your favorite place that you competed at?
MW: Probably Cuba. My first international competition was hosted here, in Arizona, and I went to Russia last year. Russia was cool, but Cuba was really awesome. We were right on the beach, which was really nice, but it was also really cool to see their culture there. It was very different. Everything was kind of “old-timey” and it was just really fun.
GoDuke.com: What are your goals for this collegiate year and this summer’s Olympic Trials?
MW: This year I want to go out there and give it my all and just have a really strong first year to build off of. I know that the freshman class set goals together, so it’s nice to know that we’re all working for the same reasons. I’m really excited for Olympic Trials and I really want to do well so my goal this year is to train hard and give 100 percent every day and see where that takes me.