VERMILLION, S.D. — It’s been nearly nine years since Haley Pederson agreed to join the high school swimming and diving team at the request of some middle school friends. She was a gymnast for 12 years, but by seventh grade, realized the passion was gone.
Pederson had an abundance of free time for the first time since she was 18 months old. Her friends, who were swimmers, convinced her to try swimming in eighth grade.
It wasn’t for her.
“I did not like swimming at all,” said Pederson, a 2017 West Fargo High School graduate. “But I agreed to go out for the team. So my first year, I dove and I never swam.”
Pederson discovered a new passion on the diving board, and emerged as a top talent in North Dakota. She dove five years for West Fargo, earning a runner-up finish in the 1-meter diving event as a senior in high school.
The sport took her to college. Pederson competes in the 1-meter and 3-meter diving events for the University of South Dakota in Vermillion. Now a senior, there’s one more meet remaining.
Pederson’s college career will come to an end where it all began — West Fargo. The Summit League Swimming and Diving Championships will be held April 15-17 at her hometown pool, Hulbert Aquatic Center.
“I think it's very special. I’m very excited,” Pederson said. “We’ve obviously had a lot of ups and downs this season and to be able to finish out where it all began, I think that’s a really cool thing.”
Pederson received word a couple weeks ago that families of student-athletes would be allowed at the conference meet, meaning her parents will be able to attend the event later this week. Their attendance wasn't certain up until that point due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
“That was very exciting, just because they’re five minutes away and weren’t going to be able to come,” Pederson said. “It’ll be nice to have them there and supporting me, because we’ve only had one other meet they’ve been able to attend this year.”
Pederson’s parents were able to attend the final meet of the regular season in Sioux Falls a couple weeks ago.
“I know for every other meet I’ve had, they've been watching on a screen," Pederson said. "And I know how frustrated they’ve been trying to watch it on their phones. So it's definitely good for them and I think it’s gonna be very cool to see them up in the stands for my last meet.”
Pederson, a nine-time Summit League female diver of the week, won the 3-meter dive with a score of 255.45 at the Summit League Championships her freshman year. She earned a runner-up finish in the 3-meter diving event and took third in the 1-meter board as a junior and sophomore.
In high school, Pederson and the Packers practiced at L.E. Berger swimming pool. She had already graduated when Hulbert opened its doors in the fall of 2017, but Pederson is still plenty familiar with the pool. When she’s back home, she practices at Hulbert with her club team, Red River Diving.
The homecoming will be her and South Dakota's second in two seasons. The Coyotes competed at Hulbert in October 2019 for the MSUM Penta Duals.
Pederson's senior season was pushed back because of COVID-19. The Coyotes didn’t compete against another team until January 16. In a normal year, the first meet is in early October, with the season concluding late February.
“It was definitely very weird,” Pederson said on not competing in the fall. “It was hard. Our team faced a lot of challenges last semester. I think that we're all very competitive people and we like to get out and compete and see our hard work paying off. I think we had a little bit of delayed gratification.”
Pederson’s roller-coaster year began last summer. She’s usually in the pool throughout the summer, taking about two weeks off. This year, she had a five-month break before getting back in the pool with her team last August. The unusually long hiatus made it “difficult” to get back into the mental side of diving, she said.
“I didn’t want to come back for another year, even though we were given that opportunity,” Pederson said. “I felt mentally and physically ready to be closing out my driving career this year.”
Pederson closed out the regular season with a pair of third-place finishes at the Coyote Invite at Midco Aquatic Center in Sioux Falls. She got her first win of the season in February in a relay dual meet against the University of Nebraska-Omaha, scoring 247.15 points to win the 3-meter competition.
Her focus entering the career-closing meet is from the mental point of view. Over the last four years, the biggest lesson — and one she’s struggled with most — is to “control the controllables.”
“I just want to dive the best that I can, and unfortunately my best doesn't always mean a podium spot, although I hope it does,” Pederson said. “I think my biggest priorities are doing the little things that my coach and I try to focus on everyday at practice, as well as just try to enjoy every moment. I’ve spent the last four years on this team, and I really want to close it out on a good note.”
Pederson graduated in December and has two semesters left of graduate school. She’ll be working in a non-diving graduate assistant position with South Dakota’s athletic department next year.