Alone at the end of a diving board, Nick Jensen turns his back to the swimming pool and edges his heels out over space, so that only the balls of his feet remain on the board. He takes a breath.
If you look closely – in the stillness before Jensen bounces once, twice and then launches himself above the water, twisting and twirling before unfolding his lithe body and knifing through the surface – you might notice a 3-inch scar beneath his curly black chest hair.
“When people ask, I say it’s a product of my past,” Jensen said, “But it’s really because I cut myself.”
Jensen’s past also includes drug and alcohol abuse, a school suspension and 10 months in a residential treatment center in Hollis. What it doesn’t include is an opportunity to dive for a state championship.
On Monday that changes. The 17-year-old senior at Cheverus High School in Portland is one of a dozen divers competing in the Maine Principals’ Association Class A boys swimming and diving state meet at the University of Maine’s Stanley Wallace Pool.
Nobody in the state scored as high in a six-dive meet this winter as Jensen did in Cape Elizabeth in December. He won the recent Southwesterns North 11-dive title by more than 100 points.
“I’ve seen a lot of divers come and go in this state,” said Mike Bartley, who coaches Jensen and divers from three other high schools, as well as those at Bates College. “There’s no question in my mind that he would have been state champion four years in a row.”
Would have, Bartley believes, had Jensen set foot on a board at the state meet. Freshman year, the funeral of a favorite aunt took precedence. Sophomore year, Cheverus suspended him for drinking during school hours. Much of junior year he spent in rehab for drug and alcohol addiction.
“His actual time on diving boards probably doesn’t amount to a full year,” said Bartley, 69, who has been coaching his sport for half a century. “That’s what makes it even more remarkable. Nick is just scratching the surface. He’s got a lot of talent and a lot of determination.”
Lean, flexible and broad-shouldered at 5-foot-8½, Jensen is perfectly proportioned to dive, Bartley said, pointing out the distance from hips to feet and hips to head.
“They’re almost equal, and that makes him a natural spinner,” Bartley said. “Plus, he takes direction well.”
Courage, intelligence and work ethic also play roles in a sport that requires its participants to stand alone, practically naked, on the edge of a board, nearly suspended in space, with every eye on the pool deck and in the balcony upon you.
“Physical fitness is part of it,” Jensen said, “but if I’m not there mentally, I can’t do the dive.”
When he was growing up in Kennebunk, Jensen’s first sport was gymnastics, which lasted into junior high. He considered wrestling in high school, but a friend at Cheverus who also dives, Lilly Lehto, suggested diving.
Jensen took to it immediately, nearly achieving state qualifying marks in his first meet. He also played football (wingback and safety) and sailed.
Freshman year was also when he started smoking pot. He had tried it as an eighth-grader but got caught, which is when he first cut himself. Self-injury, or self-harm, is the clinical term, which he learned later through therapy.
“It just became a vicious cycle,” said Jensen, dripping in a hallway after a recent practice. “It was either a good day or a bad day. It was either celebrate or medicate.”
His drug use escalated as a sophomore, reaching into school hours, when he had a free period after lunch. Cough syrup was easy to hide and more accessible than other types of alcohol.
Toward the end of the winter season his sophomore year, he bragged at school about drinking cough syrup earlier in the day. The administration got wind of it, asked him to take a Breathalyzer test, and called his parents.
“Like every parent, I suppose you hope that you’re not seeing what you’re seeing,” said Jack Jensen, Nick’s father. “He was diagnosed as being an addict.”
The Cheverus swim coach, Kevin Haley, is also a Portland police officer, so he was involved on multiple levels. With parents, school officials and Jack and Arleen Jensen urging their son to seek treatment after his three-day suspension, Nick reluctantly agreed to enter the program at Day One, an agency that treats teen drug and alcohol abuse.
“We all had our hands in it,” Haley said, “but really, it all stemmed from Nick. He had a problem and he was willing to get help.”
The decision to attend was voluntary. Had Nick been arrested for stealing the cough syrup, a court order might have required him to go.
“Honestly,” he said, “some part of me did want to get better.”
He left home in the spring of his sophomore year, but was back before the end of summer.
“I ended up getting kicked out of (Day One) after, like, two months,” he said. “When you put a bunch of troubled kids – drug addicts, some would call them – together, they can come up with some pretty creative, destructive things.”
Huffing aerosol cans. Brewing homemade alcohol, or hooch. Making a tattoo gun. Something called space monkeying, which involves hyperventilation until passing out.
“That was really, really scary,” Jensen said. “But that’s kind of the mindset. If you don’t have drugs or alcohol, that’s what you do.”
After a week at home, Jensen said, he was given a second chance to return to the rehab house in Hollis, as long as he didn’t mess up at home.
“I did mess up,” he admitted. “I smoked as soon as I got home. I stole (cough syrup). But I didn’t tell them that, so they let me back in.”
He did confess, not right away, but shortly after returning to Day One, and his counselors viewed his honesty as a positive step. He continued making progress and completed his program in the winter of his junior year, when he returned to Cheverus.
One of his closest friends at Cheverus, fellow senior Mike Haith of Biddeford, was only an acquaintance before the suspension. Last summer they hung out nearly every day, Haith working at a yacht club on the Kennebunk River and Jensen on a wooden schooner nearby. Jensen even helped Haith haul his 80 lobster traps from aboard his 20-foot skiff.
“There’s no barriers with Nick,” Haith said. “He has a magnetic way about him. Anyone, anytime, he’s there to buddy up with you. And if you want to talk about something deep, he’s right there with you.”
They share a love of outdoors and the ocean. They hiked and camped and went mountain biking. They also share a history of drug troubles. Haith had been arrested for shoplifting after smoking pot, a habit that started in seventh grade, he said, when he was trying to figure out his identity.
“I had always hung out with the Cub Scouts, the smart kids, kids I had grown up with,” Haith said. “And I was switching to kind of who I wanted to make myself out to be, the cool gang. I think he went through the exact same thing.”
Discovering who you are and where you belong is a rite of passage for every adolescent. Not every kid turns to drugs or alcohol, but these two did.
“I think fitting in is a big thing for him,” Jack Jensen said of his son, who was adopted from a Russian orphanage at the age of 2½.
“That’s a big piece of this,” he said. “You always wonder what his biological mother and father were like.”
Haith discovered a passion for marine engineering and has already put down a deposit at Maine Maritime Academy to study that field. For Jensen, diving has provided an identity, and possibly a future.
Maine Maritime and the University of Maine both offered him admission. Only the latter has diving.
“I’ve talked to him about that quite a bit,” said Bartley, who tried without success to get Jensen, whose grades have improved dramatically, into Bates. “There’s an awful lot of college scholarships for diving that don’t get taken in this country.”
Jensen has until May to decide whether, and where, to attend college. He still has goals in high school: to reward his parents and coaches for their faith, to win a state title, to break the 400-point barrier.
Is he out of the woods completely? Perhaps not. Counselors have told his parents the path will never be totally clear.
Haley, the swim coach and cop, said Jensen is often the first to talk with other teens who run into difficulties with drugs and alcohol.
“It’s very heartwarming to see a kid finish so strong,” said Haley, noting the academic and athletic achievements of Jensen. “More importantly, he’s clean, he’s sober. He’s seen the darkness of life and now he is certainly going to the light and going the right way and living the way he needs to.”
On Monday in Orono, eight times in morning trials and three more in evening finals, Jensen will climb on the board and face the pool, blocking out the twists and turns of his past life.
“It’s been a long time coming,” he said. “It’s my last chance.”
Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or at: