February 7, 2000
Volume 52, No. 20
Finding new pools to conquer
By Eric Rangus
Good coaches are hard to find, and even rarer are ones who have been tested by years of international competition. Alexandre Kossenkov's resume includes more than 20 years of diving at the world level, both as a competitor and a coach. Included in that is three Olympic Games and one Olympic medal.
When Kossenkov came to Emory last summer looking for a pool for his Cobb County-based diving club, head swim coach Jon Howell offered him the job as the Eagles' men's and women's diving coach, which he accepted.
Kossenkov, a native of Belarus, is in his first year coaching Emory divers, and his influence has been nothing but positive. Going into the University Athletic Association (UAA) championships, which Emory will host Feb. 10-12, the men's swimming and diving team is 7-1, the women 6-2, and the divers have contributed mightily to that success.
For instance, freshman Scott Messer is fourth on the men's team on total points, and if he finishes in the top three on either the one- or three-meter springboard at the UAA championships, he would become Emory's first all-conference male diver since 1990. Earlier this year, he recorded the third-highest dual score in school history on the one-meter.
Sophomore Michelle Frankel also scored Emory's second-highest dual scores ever for the women's team on both the one- and three-meter boards. Messer, Frankel and senior Christine Cook have all provisionally qualified for the NCAA Division III national championships to be held at Emory (the women compete March 9-11, and the men, March 16-18).
"Our divers are much stronger this year. They're working hard for Alex," said Howell. "He's by far the best diving coach I've ever worked with."
"There's a quality of experience to him that you can see," Messer said. "He knows exactly what he's talking about. I feel really safe and comfortable with him." Messer has won every one-meter springboard event he's entered this year.
"Alex is extremely patient with all of us," said junior diver Aaron Klink. "He's hands down the best coach I've ever had."
And the divers are patient with Kossenkov as well. His command of English is sketchy at best, but he communicates through hand signals. Of course, even if he had Shakespeare's gift with the language, it might not matter.
"Most of the time, [hand signals] are all I need," Messer said. "The pool is so loud and so big you can't hear people yell anyway." The language of diving (tuck, pike, etc.) is universal as well, so that's another problem that really isn't one.
Still, Kossenkov, who has a strong accent, works on his English constantly. "It's important to practice, practice, practice," he said. Sort of like when he was growing up in the old Soviet Union and honing his diving skills.
"It's not like a team," said the thickly accented Kossen-kov about diving in the old Soviet system. "Everybody starts with one coach and you stay with your one coach from the beginning. Here you go with different coaches all the time." True enough-Kossen-kov is the eighth coach Frankel has had in the last five years. And at this point in her career, he may be the perfect one.
"He's less a mental coach and more of a technical coach," said Frankel. "I've had a lot of coaching in [the mental] area, so I think it's good that I'm with a technical coach." Her scores reflect that. She has topped her freshman-year personal bests on the one-meter board by 58.45 points and 32.05 on the three-meter.
Emory's divers practice once a day, a much different experience than what Kossen-kov encountered during his competitive career. The Soviets combined their intense, one-on-one coaching with an almost automatonic approach to training.
Kossenkov practiced twice a day, for at least five hours, six days a week, from the age of 7. It made him grow up fast, he said, and despite its tunnel vision--or, perhaps, because of it--Kossenkov credits the Soviet system for helping him achieve his career highs, which were quite impressive.
At the young age of 19, Kossenkov finished third in the men's springboard competition at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. He was the only Soviet diver to win a medal at those Olympics.
"Nobody thought I could take a medal," Kossenkov said. "For me it was good just to get to the final. The bronze medal was a big surprise."
Despite a somewhat disappointing fifth in the springboard at the 1980 Moscow Olympics, Kossenkov had a superb career. All told he won 11 national championships in springboard and platform and was the national all-around champion twice. He retired from competition after those games and returned to Minsk, his birthplace, to coach.
When Belarus became independent in 1991, Kossenkov was named the country's first diving coach. He didn't waste any time finding success either, as the Belarusan team won the springboard competition at the European Championships that year. Belarus also took second place in springboard at the 1994 Goodwill Games.
Kossenkov took his first trip to Atlanta for the 1995 World Cup, a warm-up for his second visit, the 1996 Olympics. While Belarus finished back in the pack that summer (10th place in the springboard, 11th in the platform), he enjoyed the area so much that he made it his home, moving to Kennesaw.
Shortly afterward, he and his wife Ludmila-also a former diving coach in Belarus-formed Dive Atlanta club, where he trains divers as young as elementary school. Ludmila now coaches gymnastics in Marietta.
Looking for an Atlanta pool to match the club's facility in Kennesaw brought Kossenkov to Emory last summer and he doesn't plan on going anywhere soon.
"I'll keep this job," he said. "It's good for me, and
it's good for Dive Atlanta. I have a good time here."