East Lyme's Ryan, Sullivan complete collegiate diving careers in style

Who knew a high school gym class could change your life?

It certainly did for Mitchell Ryan and Kevin Sullivan.

If not for one day playing around in the East Lyme High School pool during gym class, they may have never embarked on a journey that would lead to successful athletic and academic careers on the collegiate level.

"It's ridiculous," Sullivan said. "It totally changed my path in life. It was crazy. I never thought I'd be a diver."

Here's the story:

One day during their freshman year, Ryan and Sullivan decided to take turns doing flips off the diving board during gym class.

After watching them, Jack Stabach, then the East Lyme swimming coach, asked the pair to give diving a try. He suggested they'd come out for the high school team.

So they did, beginning a long love affair with diving for both Sullivan and Ryan, who eventually landed at Division I Bryant University and at Division III Bowdoin College, respectively, after graduating from East Lyme in 2015.

"I didn't really know what I was going to get out of the sport when I first started," Ryan said. "I would say it's changed my life, to be honest. I wouldn't have gone to Bowdoin if not for diving. Academics also played a big role. Together, it was a good package."

And they may not have reached their level of success without each other.

Sullivan and Ryan both began competitively diving as high school sophomores. Neither had any idea what they're getting into or where it would eventually take them. But they shared an adventurous spirit and willingness to learn.

They became close friends and friendly competitors.

"They had the best bond and they pushed each other through all the years and to great success for both of them," said Holly Buckley, East Lyme's diving coach. "They were both gutsy and it worked out so well for both of them."

Ryan qualified for states before Sullivan also reached the same stage. Ryan became a two-time Eastern Connecticut Conference diving champion. As a senior, he finished third in Class M and 11th in State Open.

They both had options for the future that they never thought they'd have.

"I thought it was going to be something fun to do in the winter," Ryan said. "I ran track previously. It was just like another thing to go out and have fun and stay in shape. I thought for a while that I was going to go on scholarship for soccer or lacrosse. Out of the blue, diving came around and I excelled at that."

Ryan headed to Maine to attend Bowdoin and compete for swimming and diving program.

He just completed a tremendous career, qualifying for the NCAA Championship all four years. In a fitting end, he earned All-American honors in both diving events as a senior, placing sixth in the one-meter and eighth in the three-meter.

Ryan also repeated as the New England Small College Athletic Conference diver of the year, winning both diving events for the second straight season. He was named the four-year High Point Diver.

"This year was definitely a good cap to my career," Ryan said.

The fact that Ryan chose Bowdoin opened a door for Sullivan.

Buckley recommended that Bryant, which had recruited Ryan, check out Sullivan. It wound up being a great match and the Smithfield, R.I. campus is not far from home.

Sullivan also had a terrific career. As a sophomore, he became the first diver in the program's history to qualify for the A finals in the three-meter event at the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Championship. In February, he helped the Bulldogs to a program best second-place finish in the conference championship. He also earned conference all-academic honors.

He also did his part to elevate the program. He took his role as a team leader seriously and relished being the team's hype man, pumping up his teammates for competition.

"That's another one of the things that I really take pride in in my four years, growing the program," Sullivan said. "Now we're on the radar. I'm so thankful that I got into this program. It's given me so much and hopefully I gave enough back. It changed my life, it really did."

Outside of catching up when back home during holiday breaks, they've had limited contact during their college years due to the craziness of life as a student-athletes. But they've tracked each other's careers.

"It's insane," Sullivan said. "He's done incredibly well."

Now they'll both graduate next month.

A data science major, Sullivan is weighing a couple of job offers, leaning toward working in the finance field. He admits that he's come a long way academically since his high school days. Competing on the demanding Division I level brought structure and discipline to his life.

"If I went somewhere else, I know I wouldn't be the type of person that I am today," Sullivan said. "I wouldn't be on a team. I wouldn't have that structure in my life like I have right now. I was a terrible student in high school. I'm graduating with summa cum laude honors. I'm in a bunch of different business fraternities. I've worked hard to get that point where I am right now."

Ryan, who'll graduate with a physics major and math minor, is considering entering the renewable energy field, perhaps as a consultant or analyst. 

To think it all started playing around one a day in high school gym class.

During senior speech at the Bowdoin swimming and diving team banquet, Ryan told the story about his diving career began. It was a big hit with the crowd and drew some laughs.

"It's always a crazy story," Ryan said.

g.keefe@theday.com

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