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East Lyme's McLaughlin looking for a third straight ECC diving title

East Lyme — Ryan McLaughlin exited the locker room at the East Lyme Aquatic and Fitness Center to celebrate Senior Day recently, his feet bare, wearing a long-sleeved gray T-shirt with "East Lyme" and the high school's Vikings insignia to go with black shorts.

He ducked under an awning of pool noodles, held up by parallel rows of teammates, and headed to escort his mom, Laura, the length of the pool, presenting her with a red rose. The duo of McLaughlins held hands. After a brief ceremony and photo session with the East Lyme High School swimming and diving team's seven seniors, the meet resumed.

"It was emotional," Laura McLaughlin said. "I did cry right before he came out. It was hard not to have him."

Laura was referring to the absence of Ryan's dad, Shawn McLaughlin, who died on June 19, 2020, at the age of 52. Shawn first collapsed from a brain tumor when Ryan was 3 years old. He recovered — enough to walk without a cane, enough so that Ryan recalls playing catch in the yard with him — but he developed hydrocephalus, a condition in which fluid builds up in the brain. Shawn fought through a long illness.

Laura sees that same resolve in her son.

"Shawn's resilient. Ryan's resilient," she said. "Ryan, to me, is the epitome of strength. You're 3 years old and that happens to your father."

Ryan McLaughlin is the two-time defending Eastern Connecticut Conference diving champion, trying to add a third title Saturday at East Lyme, where this year's ECC meet will take place. The diving portion of the event will begin at 12:30 p.m., the swimming portion at 2:30 p.m.

McLaughlin won the ECC for the first time as a sophomore and repeated last year, both seasons in which COVID-19 played a curious role in the postseason.

In 2020, the Vikings won the ECC championship meet then had the Class M state meet canceled when the pandemic struck. McLaughlin was the top seed among Class M divers, but didn't get the chance to compete. Last year, the ECC meet was held at different sites. No team scores were kept and the results from each pool were combined to determine individual and relay winners. There was no state meet once again.

Now it's McLaughlin's time. His goal, prior to the end of the season, is to break the school record of 465.40 points for 11 dives, set in 2015 by current East Lyme diving coach Mitch Ryan. Site and dates for the state championship meets have not been announced yet due to a lack of available pool space stemming from the pandemic.

"He's got a great personality," East Lyme head coach Rob Bouchey said of McLaughlin. "I think he's got a personality that's suited for diving. He's a little daring, a little goofy. He's a funny kid, but he's willing to take chances, take risks."

McLaughlin, 17, of Salem, has a background in gymnastics, first with Thames Valley Gymnastics of North Franklin, then with the Nutmeg Twisters of Guilford.

"It was just basically translating all the flips from the ground onto the board," McLaughlin said of the switch to diving. "Definitely getting used to the board and being that close to it ... when you're doing gymnastics, you don't have anything that could potentially hit you. Being that close to the board can be scary sometimes.

"I wasn't sure whether I wanted to continue with gymastics, but I still wanted to do flips and stuff. So my teammate Jack (Walsh), was like, 'If you want to do diving, I'll do it with you.' I think the gymnastics background helps a lot with the form because the form is what really helps boost the points; pointing the toes and everything will help get me a couple extra points and that all comes from gymnastics."

The most difficult thing to learn about flipping over water instead of land?

"Landing on my head," he said. "Gymnastics, it's always landing on the feet, but for diving you dive in; getting that extra half rotation is what's tough."

McLaughlin plans to dive at the next level. He intends to major in nursing and walk on to the swim team at whatever university he winds up. Bouchey certainly believes that's attainable. Ryan, for instance, a 2015 East Lyme graduate and two-time ECC champ, went on to swim at Division III Bowdoin College and qualified for the NCAA championship all four seasons, earning All-America honors. Ryan's teammate at East Lyme, Kevin Sullivan, dove at Division I Bryant University.

"I think (McLaughlin) has that much potential," Bouchey said. "Diving, it becomes so rare. If you have the basic skills, which he has more than basic skills, they can continue to teach him. They have far more resources at the collegiate level. Our divers go on and succeed where they go to school."

The nursing part of the equation comes from growing up around his dad, for whom nurses were an integral part of his everyday life; Shawn was once hospitalized at Massachusetts General Hospital for more than a year, Laura said. 

"I think it has a lot to do with that, yeah," said McLaughlin, who finished Senior Day with a diving victory at 197.55 points for six dives and swam a leg on a 200 freestyle relay team just for fun. "A lot of nurses I was around in my childhood, a ton of nurses. So I just want to help people. They were able to help me so I want to help other people."

Shawn McLaughlin, a 1986 East Lyme graduate, was employed at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy as a member of the information technology department and was involved in East Lyme politics as a member of the Zoning Board and Zoning Appeals Board. Laura is a paralegal for a firm in Norwich.

Ryan, in addition to gymnastics and diving, has also been involved in community theater, often performing in the summer productions for Artful Living. His credits include The Music Man, Mary Poppins and Moana. He has one older sister, Hannah, a 2019 East Lyme graduate and a student at Curry College.

Of his father, Ryan McLaughlin said: "He was the best. I mean, we always played catch in the yard and he was always so funny. He definitely had a great personality. I think that's where (McLaughlin's perseverance) comes from. He never gave up, so I'm not going to give up. I'm always going to try to do my best."

v.fulkerson@theday.com

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