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Going Places

John Wingfield at the Olympic trials

John Wingfield typically was as busy as a tax man on April 14 in his time as an IUP student, with scarcely an idle second to savor. But in those rare moments when he wasn’t frazzled by the present, he would contemplate the future and dream of one day going places.

Though, truth be told, Wingfield never expected to wind up in China. At the Olympic Games. As head coach of the United States diving team.

But there he was on August 8, marching into Beijing National Stadium with the rest of the U.S. contingent during the opening ceremonies, engulfed by the cheers of nearly one hundred thousand spectators, President Bush included, as the hairs on the back of his neck stood at attention.

Two decades after leaving IUP with three degrees, Wingfield took part in the grandest sporting spectacle on the planet, half a world away from the campus where his dream of a coaching career took root. He has spent the intervening years accumulating both frequent flyer miles and passport stamps, circling the globe like a notable IUP student of an earlier era, Nellie Bly.

“I certainly feel blessed that I’ve had the opportunity to represent the United States and to travel the world,” said Wingfield, a New Stanton native who competed in diving at IUP (1981-85). “I’ve been on five of the continents at some point in my coaching career, which is something I never really dreamed would happen.”

Wingfield has kept his suitcase within easy reach ever since he was hired in 2005 as director and associate head coach at USA Diving’s National Training Center in Indianapolis, where the most promising divers in the land, from preteens to Olympic veterans, come to hone their technique. His charges have competed in China, Australia, Canada, Mexico, South Korea, Germany, Russia, Brazil, Great Britain, Spain, France, Italy, and the Czech Republic.

Wingfield in front of Beijing National Stadium, also known as the "Bird’s Nest"

I don’t want to ever let anybody underestimate the power of that small university back in Pennsylvania, because it really was the steppingstone that gave me the education needed to do the things I do.

—John Wingfield

The irony is, the globetrotting Wingfield didn’t have to travel far at all to launch his coaching career. After earning a bachelor’s degree in Management Information Systems in 1985, he decided to stay at IUP to pursue a second undergraduate degree in health and physical education while also working toward a master’s in sport science. In his free time—what little there was—Wingfield served as IUP’s men’s and women’s diving coach and also tutored the divers at Indiana High School.

He survived that grueling schedule with his sanity intact, picked up two more diplomas in 1988, and then heeded Horace Greeley’s advice to go west, young man. Wingfield wound up in the other Indiana. Muncie, to be precise, home of Ball State University.

“I went there as an instructor in physical education and the director of aquatics,” Wingfield said. “I didn’t coach at first, but after six months I really got the itch to coach again. So, late in the fall of 1988, I started an age-group diving program. The following year, the men’s coaching position for diving at Ball State became available. And in 1993, I started coaching the women, too, while still maintaining my academic teaching load and my aquatics directorship.”

Wingfield moved on in 1998 to the National Training Center, where his first boss was eight-time Olympic diving coach Ron O’Brien, who had guided Greg Louganis to four gold medals. In August, Wingfield walked where O’Brien had so often walked, in the parade of nations at the opening ceremonies. When the 598-member U.S. contingent passed through the tunnel and onto the floor of the stadium, the wave of sound struck like a tsunami.

“You’re entering the greatest stage on earth, really,” Wingfield said. “The goose bumps were just beyond belief when we walked out into the stadium and there were that many people cheering. It was just astounding.”

The second highlight of the Beijing Games for Wingfield was the performance of his divers, many of whom weren’t even born when Louganis won his last two golds in 1988. Kelci Bryant and Ariel Rittenhouse finished fourth in the three-meter synchronized event, with Chris Colwill and Jevon Tarantino also placing fourth on the men’s side. Both ten-meter synchro entries—David Boudia and Thomas Finchum, and Mary Beth Dunnichay and Haley Ishimatsu—finished fifth.

“The team really did quite well,” Wingfield said, “substantially better than in 2004, which is amazing because it was, I believe, the youngest team the U.S. had ever fielded in diving. Mary Beth Dunnichay, who had just turned fifteen,was the youngest of all the U.S. Olympians, diving or otherwise. Haley Ishimatsu, her partner, is about five months older—they were both fifteen at the Games. Ariel Rittenhouse was seventeen, Thomas Finchum was eighteen, and David Boudia and Kelci Bryant were nineteen. It was a very young team, so the future’s bright.”

The countdown to the 2012 London Olympics is already under way—Wingfield can tell you exactly how many days remain until the opening ceremonies—and numerous international competitions will test his divers between now and then. There’s no telling how they’ll perform, or just how many more countries he’ll add to his expanding list of foreign destinations in that time.

But one thing’s for sure: No matter where Wingfield travels, he’ll never forget where he came from.

“I don’t want to ever let anybody underestimate the power of that small university back in Pennsylvania, because it really was the steppingstone that gave me the education needed to do the things I do,” he said. “The background in biomechanics and muscle physiology and the things that many of our professors there at IUP taught me, I use on a daily basis. I’m thankful that they were great professionals and interested in teaching their students what it takes to start a career in physical education. I can’t thank the department there enough.”

After all, IUP enabled Wingfield to fulfill a long-ago dream of one day going places. It was more than a university to him—it was his launching pad to the world.