Akhiir McNeil perseveres to win diving championship

By Mike Zummo
Posted 2/22/24

Many of Newburgh Free Academy’s divers bowed out of the sport when life circumstances cost them their previous diving coach, and he wasn’t available.

Not Akhiir McNeil.

The …

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Akhiir McNeil perseveres to win diving championship


Many of Newburgh Free Academy’s divers bowed out of the sport when life circumstances cost them their previous diving coach, and he wasn’t available.

Not Akhiir McNeil.

The Newburgh Free Academy junior persevered, served as the Newburgh Free Academy boys’ swimming and diving team’s only diver, and won the Orange County Interscholastic Division I diving championship on Feb. 1 at Washingtonville High School.

“It was amazing,” McNeil said. “Just holding that title is cool. Who knew that Akhiir, the dancer, would soon be the OCIAA champion of diving. It’s just a great add-on to the things that I do.”

He went on to the Section 9 diving championships on Friday at Valley Central High School in Montgomery.

He finished 11th with a score of 310.70, a 108.70-point improvement over his OCIAA performance two weeks earlier.

He does a lot outside of the pool. He’s the junior class president, he’s part of the NFA crew team and he has a leading role in the school’s musical performance.

“I think from a generational side, you hear kids aren’t the same anymore, or kids are lazy, or whatever people say,” Newburgh swimming and diving coach Zach Williams said. “If that’s true or not, I have no idea, but I know it’s not true with Akhiir. I think people hear that in a way. A lot of adults would have thrown in the towel or not really pushed to achieve in the sport because it wasn’t really handed to them or didn’t do it from a young age.”

About three years ago, McNeil wasn’t even part of the swim program through an aquatics class at NFA Main. Then, the district offered a swim program through the Empire Program during the summer, and McNeil came out and showed an aptitude for swimming.

McNeil knew how to swim entering the program but didn’t know the techniques required for competitive swimming. He did the Empire Program for six weeks.

“I love being in the water and I love swimming and the friends I’ve made,” McNeil said. “It was just all-around a great program.”

He joined the varsity program soon after that and progressed as a competitive swimmer during his freshman year of high school.

“I never heard of NFA’s competitive swim team, and never knew there was a swim team,” McNeil said. “If I did, I would have joined earlier.”

Then, during his second year, he asked about trying his hand at diving, inspired by classmate and diver at the time, Cole Mullarkey.

“I like to try new things,” McNeil said. “I just liked the look of (diving). It’s cool jumping off the board and doing hard flips to get scored on. It’s different from swimming. It’s more of a mental thing. It’s mentally competitive.”

With a background in dance, McNeil already had the necessarily flexibility and core strength to do the somersaults and twists with diving.

“The positions like pointing my foot and being in pike, being tight in my core, and essentially everything that I did in ballet was the same thing I have to do in diving,” McNeil said. “I have to keep my core tight and my legs straight at all times.”

Then, heading into this year – his junior year – the Newburgh didn’t have a regular diving coach and many of the team’s other divers left the team. McNeil stayed and while he got some help from Williams and assistant coach Dave Doulin, who helped him with dryland workouts and staying safe on the diving board, McNeil had to find some help at the club level.

Enter Jim Frisbie, the Washingtonville Wizards’ diving coach, who also coaches at the club level. Williams said he is one of the best coaches around.

“He helped Akhiir navigate through this on a private level, but a lot of it has also been Akhiir just being self-motivated, self-driven and achieving this through just wanting to achieve, which we think is incredible.”

McNeil admitted there was some doubt about taking on the varsity season without a diving coach, but he went forward anyway, taking much of it upon himself.

“I had to self-discipline myself,” he said. “I have to focus on everything I do.”

He also had to rearrange schedules, changing his work schedule to accommodate practice. He also had to stop musicals at a certain time to make it to diving practice, so he learned a lot about time management and planning ahead so he could meet his obligations.

As he heads into senior year, he plans to proceed just as he did this year.

“In the long run, I really do want to join a diving team in college,” McNeil said.