Ability is what takes you to the top.
Versatility and perseverance are often what keep you there.
That is the case with Cave Spring High School junior Brooke Leftwich, who rose to the top in gymnastics, only to be forced to switch to diving after a severe injury put the brakes on her gymnastic career.
Leftwich has made the switch with flying colors. In her first year on the Cave Spring swim/dive team, she was named Group 3A Regional Swimmer-Diver of The Year and placed second in the Group 3A state diving meet, accumulating a 435.55 point-total which was runner-up to New Kent’s Lexi Mills’ 451.60 point-total. Leftwich’s performance was even more impressive considering that Mills’ total was a new 3A state record.
Cave Spring swim/dive coach Andy Huray says Brooke is a big addition to the Knight team.
“Brooke is a great athlete who has worked very hard from the beginning,” Huray notes. “It’s difficult in the first season where the diver performs six dives in the regular season meets and 11 dives in the postseason. There’s no places in the Roanoke area to practice diving, so divers must drive to Christiansburg 4 days a week for practice. That’s a huge deterrent to most high school kids.”
“Brooke’s situation was unique,” Huray added. “She had an extensive gymnastic background which made the transition smoother. Gymnastic relates to diving in many ways.”
“I heard though the grapevine that Brooke was a talented gymnast. She started diving with the New River Valley Diving Club, and a coach there told me she was pretty good at it. It’s outstanding that she ended up being undefeated in the regular season and second in the 3A State Meet.”
It would have all seemed unlikely 2 years earlier. Leftwich had never been a swimmer, never competed in the Roanoke Valley Aquatic Association’s swimming program and would have best been described as a novice on the diving board.
“I had never dove off a diving board before,” Leftwich noted with a slight chuckle during a recent interview. “Some friends who knew I needed to find a new athletic direction encouraged me to give diving a try. I was a total beginner and very nervous at first, even though the diving board I started with was only one meter above the water. But, I just kept trying and progressed very quickly. There’s a lot of technique and mental confidence.”
Leftwich had undoubtably learned that from gymnastics, her original sport of choice.
Born in 2000 to Allyson and Dennis Leftwich, Brooke was born into a gymnastic family where her mother, grandmother and great-aunt were accomplished gymnasts.
She joined “Mommy and Me” class in 2002 at Roanoke Academy of Gymnastics and joined pre-team a few years later, quickly progressing in the sport.
In a sport where participants advance through 10 levels, with 10 being the highest, Brooke started competing at level 7 in 2010. At various elite gymnastic events she was placing high in the balance beam, vault, floor exercise and all-around. Brooke started her 2011 season at the Tiger Paw Classic in level 7 and placed first in the all-around. She moved to level 8 in the March Madness Invitational, finishing first on vault, balance beam, floor exercise and in the all-around. She returned to level 7 for the State Championships that year, placing first on uneven bars and second on the balance beam and in the all-around. Her career was on the fast track.
As a level 8 gymnast in 2012, Brooke finished first on vault and floor exercise, as well as second on uneven bars and all-around at the World Class Invitational. Other meets followed suit, and she moved to level 9 for the 2013 season, again placing high in various prestigious events.
She progressed successfully through a 3-meet qualifying that included meets in Virginia Beach and Allentown, Pennsylvania to reach the Level 9 Eastern Nationals in Battle Creek, Michigan where she placed seventh in the floor exercise and 12th in the all-around.
“It was a great experience,” Brooke said of competing and placing well at the 2013 showcase event. “I had moved to another level and had level 10 in my sights. I knew I wanted to do this in college and have an opportunity for a scholarship.”
Brooke kept pushing herself. At age 13, she knew she had a legitimate shot at Level 10.
The goal was sidetracked with a broken ankle that required surgery in November, 2013 and she sat out the 2014 season. In 2015 she competed at level 10 during the regular season, but was limited at the level 10 Virginia State Meet due to a second ankle surgery, but was still petitioned into the Level 10 regionals in Allentown.
But, in December, 2015, a trip to Arizona for training opportunities saw the wear and tear of the sport rear its head.
“I was working with a lot of good athletes and I felt something go wrong in my right hip,” Brooke recalled. “There was a lot of pain. In this sport, there is so much repetition and wear and tear from working 5 hours a day. I knew there was a problem.”
“As soon as Brooke got off the airplane from Arizona, I could tell something was wrong,” Allyson said.
The doctor’s diagnosis wasn’t favorable.
The hip injury was known as snapping hip syndrome, where Brooke’s hip tendon was not stretching enough across the hip bone, causing the pain in the hip region. She also had a labrum fragment in her hip. Surgery to relieve the pain included release of the tendon, where the surgeon cuts the tendon away from the hip bone, allowing the tendon to move more freely.
“The doctor said ‘I’m not going to tell you you’ve got to quit gymnastics, but I’m advising you to give it up,’ “ Brooke noted. “It was devastating to hear that.”
But, like a true champion, Leftwich regrouped and found her new niche.
“Looking back on it, I now see it as one door closing and another one opening up.”
Brooke now works on her diving training at the Christiansburg Aquatic Center. She has one year left to compete at Cave Spring before hopefully landing a diving scholarship at the college level. She has designs to pursue a major in pre-med or as an optometrist.
“There’s a lot of difficulty in diving and pressure to perform,” she adds. “I’m lucky to have the opportunity. I don’t regret anything about the change from gymnastics to diving.”
“As a parent, I look at it that Brooke was lucky to be able to switch from gymnastics to diving. She’s found something new she likes and is good at.”
“We had high expectations of Brooke from the beginning,” Huray said. “She has definitely met them all.”
Motivational speaker Lailah Akita may have it summed up best.
“Don’t quit when you encounter an obstacle. Adapt a new strategy to conquer it.”