The story of MSU's last competing diver: Amanda Ling

Amanda Ling is the last diver to compete for MSU. And her coach's path may end when hers does, too.

Story by Joe Dandron

Photojournalism by Lauren Snyder

Web development by Madison O'Connor

March 17, 2021

LEXINGTON, Kentucky — With the coach that was the first to tell her she could compete at the Division I level beside her, Amanda Ling stared into the setting sun above I-75 South.

She grappled for control over the radio dial with her road trip partner as they zipped south to Cincinnati and then Lexington.

"I didn't really think about that," Ling said into the phone, that the end so continuously near to her has moved further away with each success she experienced as a senior diver at Michigan State.

She's one of 16 seniors across the Spartan swimming and diving team that will see their path at MSU end after this season's curtain call comes. Others will become just "students" with the "-athlete" struck from the record as financial strain cut their first love.

She was one of three divers at the Big Ten Diving Championships.

Now she's alone.

Paired with her coach as the duo departed on a sunny afternoon for Lexington, Kentucky, Ling and her teammates were told they had to continue their student-athlete experience somewhere else. That came after MSU's athletic department announced it would be disbanding the programs as varsity sports in a cost-cutting move that would save the athletic department roughly $2 million.

MSU Athletics' decision will remain despite a $32 million donation from MSU men's basketball alumni Mat Ishbia. The donation mainly went to basketball, with some to football and to MSU Athletics general fund.

It felt like being the last student in the lecture hall when Ling realized that it was her — only her — that will squeeze into the Spartan uniform one last time. The record books end with her.

A person wearing a swimsuit and a swim cap with the Michigan State Spartans logo on it stands with their back to the camera, facing an American flag and a flag with the Michigan State Spartans logo on it that hang from the rafters.

Lauren Snyder / The State News

Amanda Ling, before a 1-meter dive at practice at IM West on March 10, 2021.

MSU diving coach Eric Best sat beside her. Best has spent almost 20 years with the program. The image of the tenured Professor and senior student sitting in a sedan with the engine humming in the background as they barrel towards the end of their path with the sport and university is painted by the situation.

The happiest the pair sounds during the interview is when they talk about the successes of the season and seeing Ling's teammates that surprised her before they hit the road — not when talking about that late-fall meeting with Beekman or the decision that was made by the university.

There's a finality to these moments for Ling and Best.

The hours spent on a pool diving board with hundreds of eyes watching your every move, the "CRASH" of skin onto water that refuses to give. The 20 years that Best, a MSU Diving alum, calls the best job in the world coming to an end as he pushes his foot to the pedal, symbolically driving towards the end of his punch-card too.

It is a strange thing for someone that hasn't even graduated from college to think about – maybe even more so for Best, who called the university home for a career most of the years since he graduated from MSU. It's hard to fathom that the program's history may likely end with Ling, even with a pending Title IX lawsuit filed on behalf of the women's swim and dive team.

Ling will keep going as she qualified for the NCAA Championships in Greensboro, North Carolina that begin on March 17 after competing at the NCAA Zone C Championship in Lexington. Ironically, the meet where Ling kept the season going is the same place it ended too early just a year before due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Two people wearing face masks take a selfie while in a car. Both wear Michigan State University clothing.

Photo courtesy Eric Best

Michigan State senior diver Amanda Ling (left) and MSU diving coach Eric Best (right) take a selfie before they depart for the University of Kentucky for the NCAA Zone C Diving Championships that precede the NCAA National Diving Championships. Best and Ling embarked on a six hour drive as potentially the final coach and athlete to compete for Michigan State Diving in school history.

"We're returning to where we were last year when COVID hit, we were at the same meet that we're going to and Amanda got pulled off the board mid-competition," Best said.

He struggles with the fact that Ling's collegiate career will see its final chapter somewhere else next season when she transfers. He wanted to see the end, asking himself, "Why can't I have at least that?"

It is a bond of coach and athlete that many cannot understand.

To understand their bond, Ling's journey and her inspiration, we have to dive into everything that has gone on around this team, Ling and Best.

'It’s been genuinely really hard to keep going'

Ling laid her legs flat in the room dubbed "dry land" by the program's athletes and coaches after returning from Lexington to prepare for the NCAA Diving Championships. She began stretching in the same routine she does before every practice as she begins her preparation.

The room, dimly lit and musty from a flood a few years back, is exactly what its name suggests: Dry.

A trampoline, diving boards, and foam pads to soften the bruising landings of the twisting dives, she practices. It's just her, Best and the equipment — not a drop of water in sight.

Eventually, she sheds the purple flannel shirt she warmed up in and jumps up and down on the trampoline to begin preparing for the rest of her two- to three-hour practice. Best said she probably puts in close to 18 hours a week training between the pool and weight room.

"It's been really just I would say a blessing to go farther than last year," Ling said. "The most ever since I've started that I've taken off is a month, and this summer I went (about) seven months without touching a diving board."

The morning of this specific practice, Battle for MSU Swim & Dive, an advocacy group that was started by alumni of the program, held a public press conference. The group announced it would be speaking to a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee for the state of Michigan on March 11 about the finalization of the decision by MSU Athletics.

On the outside, Ling is calm and soft-spoken when discussing the subject she says inspired her this year.

A person wearing a face mask and swimsuit sits in front of an empty pool with empty viewer stands.

Lauren Snyder / The State News

Amanda Ling, an MSU diver, before a practice at IM West on March 10, 2021.

On the inside, she neatly folds and tucks away all the noise, all the Facebook posts, lawsuit updates and constant news that may or may not alert her of her sports fate at MSU into the background. The work-life separation is crisply wrapped into her practice schedule like the white athletic tape around both of her wrists.

For a moment during her practice, she takes a break to think about all of it.

"You kind of have a hard time getting in the pool and doing the best you can because all that other stuff is going on," Ling said as she sat next to the pool she trains in. "There's been a lot of moments where it's been really genuinely hard to keep going."

Ling is thankful for the chance to compete this season but also voiced that she wishes the decision never occurred. On one strong hand that stretches out from her 5-foot-4 body, she's the successful student-athlete that has the ability, like others who compete for a program that gets cut like MSU's, to finish her final two years of eligibility elsewhere.

The other hand is gripped in frustration about a decision no one seemed to explain well enough in the eyes of current and former athletes.

"As the summer went on and we saw sports cut across the nation, we — at least I — personally asked my coaches, 'Hey, is this something you think would happen to us?' and we were told, 'No. There's no talk of that,'" Ling said. "So then when we got that announcement it was definitely a surprise...Just knowing that the university is really trying as a whole not to support us has made it a challenge to compete this year."

Ling has enjoyed the support of her trainers, coaches and weight room staff. But after that, she decided it's time to stop talking about the negative and focus on the task at hand, stepping up onto the 1-meter high diving board that hovers above the eerily flat water of the cavernous pool area.

Swim and Dive Head Coach Matt Gianiodis stood in his office on the other end watching with a banner celebrating 50 years of women's Swim & Dive hung from a bar just a few feet away, directly in the view of Ling as she stepped on to the board.

The NCAA Championships are a week away. Ling is preparing for a moment that was taken away last season and has been in the cards since she began diving as a high schooler.

"I've got a job to do," Ling said.

A person jumps up from a diving board with one leg straight and one leg bent. In the background are green and white pennants hanging on a string.

Lauren Snyder / The State News

Amanda Ling, mid-jump on a 1-meter dive during practice at IM West on March 10, 2021.

'I could see the talent'

Best and Ling first met when Ling attended MSU's Diving Camp as a young high schooler at Walled Lake Central High School on the eastern side of Michigan.

"What words I didn't include in that was that, 'I want you to dive at MSU' … she was a rookie but I could see the talent," Best said. "Two things: I could see the talent and I could see just her work ethic."

It's that work ethic that has set Ling apart from many in the conference.

"It's a situation that limited our coaches' ability to attract talented student-athletes and hampered our student-athletes ability to maximize their potential," MSU's athletic director Bill Beekman said in a press release on Oct. 22 about the end of the program.

"To be honest, that was what motivated me this year," Ling said. "To be you know, you've told us that our facility has created a situation where we couldn't recruit talented student-athletes. And I knew that I had a position with the potential to go far this year and that really motivated me to just work as hard as I could and go as far as I could this year."

The senior is an all-academic Big Ten athlete who will graduate with a 4.0 GPA and a bachelor's in secondary education. Ling finished 7th in the Zone C Championships 1-meter platform dive to compete in Greensboro and was top-10 in the 3-meter at the Big Ten Championships.

Her success doesn't come without a weight not felt by anyone else.

A person wearing a swimsuit and swim cap with a Michigan State Spartans logo on it stands with their hands on their hips, looking down.

Lauren Snyder / The State News

Amanda Ling, before a 1-meter dive during practice at IM West on March 10, 2021.

"Yeah, we're fighting to save the team, but I could potentially be the last person who ever wears the green and white and competes in the pool," Ling said. "That gets hard to think about."

Ling closed her eyes again as she sprung off the diving board and shut it all out. This time, '70s disco booms over speakers in the background as swimmers train on the other end of the pool.

A bond formed over the years

Best knows how important all of this is to so many people.

It's important to him too. Ling said Best cried when she qualified for NCAA Championships.

"It's really bittersweet because honestly she's gonna get to finish her plan but I'm not gonna finish my plan for her," Best said. "She's going to be finishing that plan with somebody else. And I just feel like that was something that was taken away from us. But again, I wouldn't feel this way if it wasn't absolutely fantastic — the four years we had together."

Their coach-athlete understanding of one another is evidently forged with the hours in a hot pool area. Best said his divers are the kids he never had and the family he will miss dearly when his career ends sooner than he thought.

"This has been almost three-quarters of my life," Best said, before being interrupted by Ling diving into the pool as she 180s in mid-air before sliding calmly, head-first, into the water.

A person wearing a swimsuit and swim cap dives in the air while two people wearing face masks and sitting on a bench tip their heads while watching.

Lauren Snyder / The State News

Amanda Ling, mid-dive, during a diving practice at IM West with her coach Eric Best and The State News' Joe Dandron watching from the side of the pool on March 10, 2021.

"That's the best one you've ever done. Absolutely. By a longshot. Remember that feeling," he tells Ling as she climbs out of the pool and under a heating lamp that hugs the wall above.

"With coaching her, we've gotten to a point where you notice that conversation? About what're you doing here, what do you feel like," Best said. "(That interaction is) just because we've been working together so long and she's so damn smart."

When everything is spiraling around him, Best says the work he does as a coach is what gives him sanity.

He grips the bench next to the pool and thinks about retirement, about what is next and where he may go. He isn't sure, he never really thought this point would come — maybe most people never do.

The duo's bond is apparent, although they both agree he's the more emotional of the two. When her career ends, his might too.

It's a finality that is becoming more and more common with every dive Ling takes.

A program hanging in the balance

As Ling began her practice that day, she thought about all the years at MSU that she won't, like all seniors — athlete or not — get back.

"I broke my foot sophomore year, then the program gets cut in my senior year when I'm graduating and have this COVID year, the NCAA granted it as like an extra year," Ling said. "I was just put in this position where if things had played any differently, this would be the end of the road for me but I get the chance to keep going. The road gets longer. I really thought about everything happens for a reason and I wouldn't do anything differently."

A person wearing a swimsuit and swim cap dives in mid-air, with their legs straight but tucked toward their body over their head.

Lauren Snyder / The State News

Amanda Ling, mid-dive, during practice at IM West on March 10, 2021.

Her success at MSU has been driven by her own design. Her own work-ethic, passion and fuel to be the best athlete she can be. But the MSU Diving program means so much more than medals and accolades — it's been a conduit of memories and friendships that will last her entire life.

"Honestly I feel like most student-athletes could say this but your entire life sort of becomes your sport," Ling said. "I've met all of my best friends, all of the friends I know I'll have for life, they're my teammates. Diving is a social sport, you spend a lot of time waiting in lines."

The line got shorter, Ling got better and one thing remained the same: The uniform she put on at every meet.

Her roommate, also an athlete, walks by. They live with other members of the team just like college students often live with friends from clubs or classes.

Those who come after them are losing what brought her and her three roommates together.

An Olympic sport, again, like hundreds across the nation, being axed by administrations. It's an odyssey that will likely continue as budgets are slashed at universities across the nation — with those that receive the brunt end of its ripple effect not being able to do anything about it.

"It's really truly so important for the sport of diving that we have programs in the NCAA," Ling said during her practice.

Two people wearing face masks pose for a photo together with their arms around each other. One wears a polo shirt with the Michigan State Spartan logo on it and the other wears a swimsuit.

Lauren Snyder / The State News

MSU Diving coach Eric Best (left) and MSU Diver Amanda Ling (right) on March 10, 2021.

Miles away, a meeting is going on with a committee she doesn't know anyone on about the team she competes for.

Inside the walls of IM West's pool, she climbs back out of the pool to prepare for another leap in preparation for what could be the last in a Spartan swimsuit.

Once again, she snaps her eyes shut and brushes away everything outside of the walls around her.

Her coach, sits against the wall watching silently until she crashes through the glass-like pool surface.

Their path has met at a fork in the road and must diverge. But for now, they can enjoy the music playing over the pool room speakers.

"If I fear I'm losing you, it's just no good," Blondie sings, as both coach and athlete near the end of their time together.

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Cover photo: Amanda Ling watches the delayed TV display of the dive she just practiced in order to see what she looked like to improve her dive during her practice at IM West on March 10, 2021. Lauren Snyder / The State News

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