Iowa diver Sam Tamborski reflects on up-and-down Iowa career

The now-senior will move into an assistant coaching role this fall while she pursues a master’s degree in public affairs.


David Harmantas

Iowa diver Sam Tamborski dives from the 1m board during a swim meet against the University of Northern Iowa and Western Illinois University on Friday, Feb. 1, 2019.

Austin Hanson, Sports Editor

Todd Waikel’s email inbox is constantly filled with messages and recruiting information from athletes. So, when a Sam Tamborski highlight reel nonchalantly hit his address circa 2017, it quickly fell into an endless fray.

“It’s funny you bring that up,” said Waikel, who has been the University of Iowa’s diving coach for nine years. “I forgot about that. I don’t remember exactly why I didn’t give her much attention. I think it might’ve been that I was low on scholarship or didn’t have much money.”

What Waikel didn’t know when he glossed over Tamborski’s tape is that he nearly missed an opportunity to bring an eventual three-time NCAA qualifier and two-time All-American into his program.

Tamborski sent 30 schools, including the University of Iowa, a recruiting package. Her prep team, Mile High Dive Club, forced her to do so.

Tamborski competed with the Littleton, Colorado-based Mile High Dive Club for eight years. The team’s facility was an hour’s drive away from her home in Castle Rock, Colorado. Tamborski said she and her family made the hour drive almost every day for the eight years she was with the club.

Despite her lengthy tenure with Mile High Dive Club, Waikel didn’t notice Tamborski’s diving prowess until he watched her compete in-person during her junior year of high school.

“It’s actually kind of a funny story,” Tamborski said. “I originally actually emailed [Waikel] when I sent out my 30 emails to all the colleges. I actually never got a response from him. And I was like, ‘Hey, that’s interesting.’

“After our first meet, [Waikel] emailed my coach and was like, ‘Oh my gosh, who is this girl? I have to have her on a trip here,’” Tamborski added. “He didn’t even know that I already sent him an email.”

Tamborski eventually committed to the University of Iowa. Her first season in the Black and Gold was 2018-19.

Tamborski was a springboard diver throughout her prep school career. When she arrived on campus in Iowa City, Waikel and his coaching staff forced Tamborski to try five, seven, and 10-meter platform dives.

“I was terrified, especially when I had to start learning platform,” Tamborski said. “Those are the boards that aren’t springboard. I was so scared to go up there. My coaches would just force me to go up there. They’d force me to do dives up there so I would just get more comfortable doing it. I guess, at some point, I just realized I enjoy this sport way too much to be scared of it.”

Waikel said Tamborski was a beautiful tower diver. He added that platform dives were hard on her back and affected her ability to compete at a high level on springboard. As a result, Tamborski was forced to scale back her work on the high dive and focus on springboard.

Tamborski said the experience she gained on the high dive helped her sharpen her springboard skills. Tower diving helped Tamborski overcome a fear that isn’t apt for divers to have: heights.

“I think doing tower definitely helped me get over my fear of heights, especially just going down to 3-meter,” Tamborski said. “It seems so much shorter than 10-meter when you go back down to springboard. It still is nine feet, but compared to tower, it’s nothing.”

Tamborski’s freshman season was arguably her best at the University of Iowa. She set personal bests in the 1- and 3-meter dives, posting scores of 297.95 and 355.05, respectively, during the regular season. Tamborski also qualified for her first NCAA Division I Women’s Diving Championships in 2018-19.

“She had a great freshman year,” Waikel said. “I just remember her coming in as a freshman and just really turning some people’s heads right away. She was very well-trained when she was in high school … From the moment she got here, I realized this girl was very well-trained. She came in really ahead of most freshmen that come here. I’m talking within the first three or four days of her being here at practice, I realized that right away.

“I remember at her first [NCAA] zone meet her freshman year, she just turned everybody’s heads on the pool deck because nobody knew who she was,” Waikel added. “I remember that very first two days of that zone meet, people came up to me like ‘Wow, who is this girl?’ She was just tearing it up.”

Seventeen months after Tamborski’s breakout freshman campaign ended, her collegiate career at Iowa was in jeopardy. On Aug. 21, 2020, Iowa Athletics announced the discontinuation of four of its NCAA Division I sports. Hawkeye Athletics director Gary Barta said the cuts were made to combat financial losses brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

RELATED: Iowa divers eliminated from NCAA Championship contention

Among the sports cut was women’s swimming and diving.

“I remember going into a gym,” Tamborski said. “All of the teams were sitting there. We were really wondering what was going on. Then, they told us the teams were getting cut. My heart sank. It was the worst feeling ever. I don’t think I’ve ever felt like that before.”

Tamborski had at least one more season to compete as a Hawkeye, however, as the cuts became official following the 2020-21 academic year.

Eventually, Tamborski began to search for an institution to compete at after the 2020-21 season. She ultimately committed to Texas A&M to continue her diving career, with some help from Waikel.

Before she moved to College Station, however, Iowa’s varsity women’s swim and dive program was reinstated in perpetuity on Feb. 15, 2021. The program’s return was one result of an out-of-court settlement four former Hawkeye women’s swimmers reached with the University of Iowa.

Sage Ohlensehlen, Kelsey Drake, Alexa Puccini, and Christina Kaufman sued the University of Iowa, alleging the discontinuation of Hawkeye women’s swim and dive violated Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. The legislation states, “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

With Iowa women’s swim and dive fully reinstated, Tamborski decommitted from Texas A&M and returned to the University of Iowa for the 2021-22 season. She was one of a handful of divers to return to Iowa for the 2021-22 season.

“It was hard for me to not care about what other people would think of me staying at a program everyone was having different opinions on,” Tamborski said. “Some people thought the athletic department didn’t care about the swim and dive team. Others were ready to give it a chance.

“I think I stayed because I absolutely love Todd,” Tamborski added. “I love working with him, and I couldn’t see myself at a different school. My teammate Sarah [Ballard] decided to stay with me as well, which was really nice. I knew I had to be here for her and for Todd so he could have a team and keep his job and everything. I don’t regret that decision at all.”

Tamborski was one of just 13 athletes on Iowa swim and dive’s 2021-22 roster. Before Iowa Athletics tried to cut the program, the Hawkeyes had 34 individuals on their team.

In 2021-22, Iowa’s depleted roster yielded an 0-7 record in regular season meets. The Hawkeyes finished last at the 2022 Big Ten Championships in Madison, Wisconsin. None of Iowa’s athletes qualified for the NCAA Championships — Tamborski included.

“I feel like we did a lot of preparation for having a small roster throughout the year,” Tamborski said. “… Sometimes I did sit down and think, ‘Wow, OK, we’re going to lose every meet.’ But I feel like, at the end of the day, that’s not what being in a sport is about.

“Especially at this moment, like after our team got cut, we have so much more to participate for than winning,” Tamborski added. “It’s more of a symbolic thing.”

Tamborski qualified for the NCAA Championships on the 3-meter springboard in each of her first three seasons at Iowa. Strep throat held Tamborski out of the 2022 Big Ten Championships.

She still participated in the NCAA Zone D Diving Championships March 7-9. With just one week of post-illness practice under her belt, however, Tamborski was not in good enough shape to qualify for the 2022 NCAA Championships in Atlanta.

“This year was so hard for me,” Tamborski said. “I just had a lot of things going on in my life that were really unfortunate and I couldn’t have changed. Right before the meet, my teammate broke her leg. It was like the day before competition started at zones. I was still coming off strep. I only practiced for about a week. Also, my boyfriend and I had just broken up.

“Honestly, I could give you all of these excuses as to why I didn’t make NCAAs,” Tamborski added. “I think everything happens for a reason. I guess [the NCAA Zone D Championships] was just my last meet. That’s when I was supposed to be done. I’m happy with the conclusion of my season.”

Tamborski could return to the University of Iowa for a fifth season in the pool. The NCAA gave all its 2020-21 athletes an additional year of eligibility because of COVID-19. Tamborski, however, is not going to take the NCAA’s offering.

Instead, she will go to grad school at the University of Iowa in 2022-23 and return to the Iowa swim and dive team as a graduate assistant coach. Tamborski said going to grad school and being an NCAA Championships-caliber diver would’ve been too difficult for her to balance.

Returning as a coach, however, was something Tamborski could manage. For the next two years, she’ll have a hand in rebuilding the Hawkeyes’ current 13-athlete roster into a full team.

“I think she’ll provide that perspective as an athlete that’s been very successful as a Hawkeye,” Iowa swim and dive head coach Nathan Mundt said. “She’s been to three NCAA Championships, which is exactly what we want our athletes to aspire to. We want them to think they’re going to excel at the Big Ten level, at the NCAA level, and on an international platform as well.

“Having that perspective of coming in, just getting to work every day, and understanding what you have to do to get better, I think Sam can be a leader in that regard,” Mundt added. “She’s been there and done that.”

Tamborski will graduate with a master’s degree in public affairs after the 2023-24 academic year. She said she wants to find a career in public policymaking. Tamborski has particular interest in low-income housing policies.

“Honestly, I’m very happy with what I accomplished these last four years,” Tamborski said. “Not only myself, but how I’ve grown as a person, how I’ve been able to work with my coaches and become a leader on this team, which was something I never thought I’d be in college. I never considered myself a leader before.

“I kind of grew into this role,” Tamborski added. “I’m really thankful for the way everything happened because I’ve learned a lot of very important skills.”