Broken bones, sprains and pulled muscles were nothing new to Westlake’s Grace Kelsheimer.

A competitive cheerleader since age seven, the tumbler and flyer — the person thrown into the air and caught by her teammates — knew injuries were a part of her chosen sport.

And those injuries forced her into a different sport: diving.

But the burst of pain she felt in her right knee after an awkward landing during a tumbling practice session midway through her freshman year certainly seemed different.

Her parents, Julie and Jerry, were called by Grace’s coaches at Avon’s Top Gun All-Stars, the program that allowed her to travel around the country throughout the year to compete, and informed them that Grace needed medical attention immediately.

It turned out her ACL was torn and the ever-active Grace was going to be sidelined for most of the next year.

“I was doing what is called two back handsprings to a double,” she said. “It’s two back flips, then a backflip with a double twist, and then you land on your feet. (The pain) was one of the worst things ever. The even worse part of it, though, was knowing that it was such an awful injury and I knew I’d be out for a long time.”

Rehabilitation took almost 10 months, costing her much of her sophomore cheer season at both Top Gun and at Westlake High School, where she’d won the Southwestern Conference tumbling championship as a freshman. When she returned to the mat, sporting a new knee brace, she was determined to keep cheering and got back to her usual routines.

By the end of her sophomore year, however, she decided she’d only remain cheering as a Demon in the fall, leaving the Top Gun All-Stars behind. Her new focus was going to be either gymnastics or diving, and she spent last summer experimenting in both.

In relatively short order, diving won out.

“I had friends that took a break from competitive cheer and tried diving, and it was easy for them to learn,” Grace Kelsheimer said, “I thought I’d give diving a shot and ended up really liking it.”

In November, using a sequence of flips and twists she invented on the fly just before walking onto the mat, she captured her second SWC tumbling title. Not long after, she was ready to put her diving skills to the test in her first varsity season.

In late July, Julie Kersheimer was put in touch with Demons diving coach Betsy Karban, who had Grace come to Cleveland State to practice with her husband, Rich, the decorated longtime diving coach of the Vikings.

The Karbans run the Cleveland Area Diving club at the CSU pool, where divers of all ages can be found learning the sport. Grace found them to be a great fit as coaches, and so she began to work with Rich four to five days a week — about 12 total hours — starting in August. That routine has continued ever since.

“She’s really done a great job,” Rich said. “The tumbling has really helped her to make a quick transition, but I don’t think it’s been so much her experience as it’s been just her. She gets after it. You tell her what to do and she gets it, and she’s able to make corrections. She’s easy to work with, she pays attention and she’s coachable.”

Rich Karban, a former diver himself who has been named both the Mid-American Conference and Horizon League Coach of the Year in the past and has worked with Olympic-level divers, was tasked with helping Grace learn the many nuances of an event that is as mentally challenging as it is physical.

“You’ve got to be in control of your mind and your emotions,” he said. “With diving, it’s not like most sports. If you land wrong, you hit the water wrong, you smack and it hurts. If you hit the board, that’s not ideal. The difficult part with diving is you’ve got all this anxiety and fear on a very regular basis.”

Grace showed promise early, mainly thanks to the movements she’d made on a constant basis as a cheerleader. And she’s been all work ethic, spending much of the week with Rich, then working with Betsy every Friday at the Demons’ practice in Westlake. In the average week, Grace has put in up to 15 hours as she’s tried to gain ground on more experienced divers and find her place among Westlake’s 11-member diving roster — a high number for most schools.

“She’s so fun to coach because you give her a direction to change something, and she makes the correction every time,” said Betsy, now in her sixth year with the Demons. “She works very hard. She dives five days a week, at least, sometimes six. She’s focused, she’s got a drive in her and she wants to learn new things.”

Once the season started in November, Grace saw results. She took first place in six different events throughout the schedule, and began to feel at home in the pool. One weekend, in particular, made her realize she was exactly where she was supposed to be.

“At the Oberlin Invitational (in December), almost all of the Westlake team was there, and so were a bunch of the people I dive with at Cleveland State,” Grace said. “And it was one of my better meets, and we were all there and had a lot of fun, and I realized that it was something I was so glad I switched to, and I was so thankful for being in that position.”

Her biggest achievement to date came Jan. 24, where she upset Avon senior Amanda Socha to win the SWC diving title. Socha was a three-time defending league champion and a 2019 state qualifier,. Heading into their final attempts, the scores were close. Kelsheimer led the whole evening, but Socha kept within 10-15 points, meaning their final dives had to be near perfect to win.

Both girls attempted a dive that was virtually the same, a backflip with two-and-a-half twists, but Socha’s was just a bit off, while Grace’s was flawless, completing both twists without added clutter and minimal splashing once she hit the water.

When her winning score of 426.75 was posted, there was a mix of surprise and excitement. Every time she’d gone up against Socha during the season, she’d come up short.

Suddenly, the pain and upheaval that defined the year before had turned into tangible proof that Grace Kelsheimer was an athlete up for any challenge.

“I was really surprised because going into the competition, I wasn’t expecting to win,” she said. “I just wanted to do my best and I wasn’t going to be upset if I didn’t place that high. After my last dive I looked up and I was still the lead diver and I thought, oh my gosh, I never thought that would happen.”

In six years as coach, Betsy has sent two other divers to State and hopes Kelsheimer can become the third, either this winter or next.

“With her wanting to train year round as hard as she does, and seeing that she’s really enjoying it, with her being as good as she could be, it’s going to be exciting to watch her dive,” she said.

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