Like the rest of the world, Evan Moretti is at the mercy of COVID-19.
In his case he’s waiting to hear if U.S. Olympic Trials in diving will be held as scheduled June 13-21 in Indianapolis, and — welp — whether the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan, will be held at all in July and August.
The 2015 Scarsdale High School and 2019 Duke University graduate has dedicated himself to full-time diving since last spring for the first time in his life, giving himself a year to see just how far he can go with the sport.
With graduation approaching last May, Moretti realized, “I had a lot more left in me.” He was still making big gains at a fast rate, but had a disappointing final NCAA Division I Championship meet — he was 11th, still his best-ever finish on the 1-meter — after doing extremely well at the ACC Championships, where he was named Most Valuable Men’s Diver.
“It didn’t make sense for me to stop,” Moretti said. “It just didn’t come together like I had planned. I just know I could have done better. Sometimes it’s just the day, sometimes it’s the meet, who knows?”
There were two important phases in Moretti’s post-Duke growth. The first came as he trained in China from August through early December in advance of the 2019 USA Diving National Winter Championships, where he placed ninth on the 3-meter board. The second was when he returned home to continue training with his longtime mentor, Fordham University and New York Dive Club coach Zhihua Hu, an Olympic diving coach in 1988, 1992 and 1996. With Hu, Moretti built off the tremendous experience of training overseas.
“This guy is just the best,” Moretti said. “He’s just on another level. These last two or three months I’ve improved more than I ever have in my whole life. I’m nearly where I want to be at the end of my career. I’m close to what I want to accomplish.”
With his winter nationals performance, Moretti made the 2020 USA Diving High Performance Squad — the national team — guaranteeing himself a spot at the Olympic trials.
“Looking at the athletes selected to be a part of the 2020 High Performance Squad, I am extremely proud of not only the depth of talent we have, but also the mix of old faces with new names,” Dan Laak, High Performance director for USA Diving, said in a statement. “As we set our sights on the Olympic Games, Tokyo 2020 and beyond, these divers are the future of our sport. This High Performance Squad is only part of the story. Elite athletes don’t start out as elite, they are developed through our clubs and fantastic coaches throughout the country, and we are happy to come alongside them and help carve out that pathway from grassroots to Olympic champions.”
Moretti’s final leg of his training journey landed him in Nevada last week to work with more elite divers under the tutelage of Jian Li You, the diving coach of University of Nevada and Nevada Diving Club. You was an Olympic diver for China in 1989 and is a colleague of Hu.
“They are great friends,” Moretti said. “She took me to a meet in December and she loved coaching me and invited me to train with her. She thinks I have a lot more to improve and get better in these next couple of months. I’m already on that track where I feel I’m doing well. The idea is to keep it going and see where I can land. I’m really happy where I’m at.”
With several upcoming meets being canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic, trials and the Olympic games as a whole, scheduled for July 24 to Aug. 9, are in jeopardy. All other major sports have been shut down during the crisis, with no potential targeted start-up date on the horizon.
In a March 17 statement, the International Olympic Committee said, “The IOC remains fully committed to the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, and with more than four months to go before the Games there is no need for any drastic decisions at this stage; and any speculation at this moment would be counterproductive… The IOC will continue to monitor the situation 24/7.”
Moretti hopes he gets his chance to shine on the big stage against the other best divers in the country and the world.
“I’m a little bit behind in the experience department, but that’s all right,” he said. “I’m just going to train as much as I can, put my head down and focus on this until June so I can do as well as I can in June. If you do really well you can go to Tokyo. Another goal is the World University Games, which happens just before the Olympics.
“I just want to get my head in the game and just qualify for something, anything and see where I can take this. There’s only a couple of months left in my career, so I’m just going to really put my head down and focus on it. After that I’ll get a job in New York City with my friends.”
The road to trials
Moretti is part of an incredible diving lineage in Scarsdale. It started with Donnie Callara, a 2004 SHS grad who switched from gymnastics to diving as an eighth-grader. He went on to break school records at both Scarsdale under coaches Kevin Lynch and Tim Callahan and Fordham under Hu.
Todd Leone, a 2009 SHS grad, was the next star diver and had a strong career at Lafayette.
Though they never overlapped in high school, they are all linked through the Scarsdale summer swim and dive team. Callara competed and coached there, with two of his students being Leone and Moretti. Leone also went on to coach Moretti in the summer.
“Our summer swim and dive program would be nowhere without the amazing past divers that have come through it,” summer coach Inga DeNunzio said. “Donnie Callara, Todd and Nick Leone, and Evan Moretti may not have made a huge splash in the pool, pun intended, but they’ve all made a huge impact on our town’s summer program. Either as a diver or as a coach, these gentlemen have changed diving in Scarsdale for the better.”
Callara was the Section 1 and New York State champion as a senior in 2004, and despite breaking the Section 1 record that had been set in 1992 with his career high 512.25, it only took a 470.10 to win states that year. Callara went on to break all three diving records at Fordham, including those of Paul Delo of Tappan Zee, whose Section 1 record he had topped.
Moretti made his presence known during his freshman year at Scarsdale, scoring 409 points and taking fourth in Section 1. Sophomore year he was Section 1 runner-up by about 10 points, but had raised his score to 465.55. He went on to place 11th at states that year.
As a junior, Moretti won the Section 1 title and took second in New York State, beating Callara’s school record with a 537.70.
Senior year, when the Raiders won their first-ever team title in swimming and diving, Moretti’s numbers were off the charts. He set the school and section 11-dive record in winning his second straight title with 645.80 points — he also holds Scarsdale’s six-dive record of 354.0 — and was again the NYS runner-up.
Callahan and Lynch both coached Callara, another Hu protégé, and Moretti in high school. They were twice-in-a-lifetime high school divers.
Callahan followed Moretti’s NCAA performance and noted the difference one or two dives can make when you don’t nail them. “Diving is all about consistency — you can’t miss anything,” Callahan said.
Knowing the work Moretti has put in both as a student-athlete and then as a full-time diver, Moretti’s achievements come as no surprise, nor does his first-class character.
“For him there were always distractions with school and normal life and now he’s just focused on this one thing,” Callahan said. “If he can make certain improvements, who knows what’s going to happen? If he’s getting the kind of coaching he’s getting now at an international level and they think he’s got a shot, then he definitely does.”
At Duke, Moretti was a three-time All-America Honorable Mention and four-time NCAA championship qualifier. He graduated as a top three diver in all three events: second on 3-meter (414.23) and third on 1-meter (387.38) and platform (372.55). His senior year, Duke tied for 29th as a team at NCAAs, the highest finish for the team since 2014.
Moretti spent four years laser-focused in the classroom and on his diving. Discipline and dedication were key and he had others to push him.
“My teammates were really ambitious to build a better program at Duke and I think while we were there for four years we made great progress and a lot of us accomplished our goals,” he said. “We were pretty happy.”
In college, Moretti was able to develop from the “scrawny” kid who was never the strongest or most athletic into one of the best pound-for-pound divers in Division I with a “serious physical program.”
“I was no longer at a disadvantage physically,” he said. “I started jumping higher than everybody, I started getting stronger than everybody.”
In terms of his technique and mental game, Duke coach Nunzio Esposto was a key part of Moretti’s growth.
“Nunzio was really good at developing my talent” Moretti said. “We clicked on a personal level as well as in the pool. He was able to push me in ways he sometimes didn’t push other people because I was always really motivated and willing. He was able to recognize my limits and push me harder to try to take my game to the next level and it really paid off.”
Esposto saw untapped potential in Moretti as an incoming freshman and, while he saw him leave on top of his game, he knew there was more in the tank. “When he graduated I don’t think he was entirely sure what he wanted to do, but he had an inclination he wanted to keep diving,” Esposto said. “Senior year he was at a pretty high level. He had never done USA Diving nationals because of timing. It’s hard to be a college diver and do the USA diving route. It’s a lot of traveling during school and a lot of missing school.”
Esposto credited Moretti with being “one of the hardest workers” he’s coached. “That’s what was so special about him,” he said. “That and he’s very talented. The combination of the two is great when you’re an athlete.”
Making the choice to keep going let Esposto know “he still has that fire in him.”
Esposto knows the trials and the Olympics are hanging by a thread, but said wherever life takes Moretti he will “represent Duke no matter what he does in a great capacity.”
China being Moretti’s landing place for the fall wasn’t a major surprise. Summers he would train there for a month with Hu and New York Dive Club.
“Those were always super beneficial training in a high level environment with the Chinese provincial teams,” Moretti said. “They just have far superior facilities and government funding with all their equipment. They have really great coaching over there and it’s also the number of hours you can put in in a day over there. You can go six to eight — you have all day at the pool and that’s the only thing you’re doing.”
He added, “Nothing compares to just training.”
The full-time training with top Chinese coaches, all friends of Hu, was exactly what Moretti needed. “Being in China and training that hard I think he has a new attitude,” Esposto said. “He knows it’s hard to train at the Chinese level. It’s unlike anything else because in China that’s what they do — they train to win Olympic gold medals. It’s a little different to the amount of training an athlete here in the United States, in diving at least, does. It just shows a lot [about] his character that he’s done this.”
Overseas, Moretti was about to overcome “several technical weaknesses” that were obstacles for him as a student-athlete at Duke. He credited “really superior” coaching in China for helping him make major gains, in addition to an improvement in athleticism from the workouts.
“What it specifically has to do with in diving is the ability to really get more power out of the board and get more spring out of it,” Moretti said. “It’s really a nuanced technical thing that not a lot of people can do. It takes a lot of hours on the board and getting used to getting a good ride out of the board. That got a lot better so I’m able to jump a lot higher, which makes me able to do more flips.”
The “high-level environment” suited Moretti, who also immersed himself in the culture with his Chinese and Indonesian training partners.
Moretti had studied Mandarin at Duke. “It was definitely difficult and definitely hurt my GPA a little bit, especially toward the beginning,” he joked, “but that was a class I wanted to take. I had become just advanced enough to make my way around China on my own with no English, so once I started speaking there every day and only speaking Chinese, my Mandarin got really, really good.”
He also got used to eating “crazy spicy stuff for every meal,” participating in new local pastimes and better understanding the humor and attitudes of the Chinese. “It was definitely a shock, but you get used to it,” Moretti said. “It was a great experience and I’m thankful I had the opportunity to go on my own.”
Between the training and the cultural immersion, the decision paid off. “I don’t know where I’d be without it,” Moretti said. “I’m happy I didn’t forgo the opportunity. I definitely would have regretted not going knowing what I know now.”
Winter nationals were held Dec. 17 to 22 in Minnesota. Moretti competed on the 1-meter and 3-meter springboards, taking ninth in the 3-meter with 1,088.60 points. Moretti competed in the preliminaries/quarterfinals of the 1-meter, taking 13th with 272.60, but did not advance to the semifinals.
“I did solid at it, really well, just a little bit under where I thought I was,” Moretti said. “It was still good enough to allow me to continue diving because they added me to the national team. I started from there and now I’m going to continue through trials because I have a really good training peak going on. I’m going to ride it out.”
On March 5, USA Diving announced the 91 athletes named to the 2020 USA Diving High Performance Squad, which consists of three tiers, with the third divided into juniors and seniors. Moretti is in the Tier 3 senior group.
The one thing Moretti continues to control is the work he puts in toward reaching his goal in Nevada.
“Whether he succeeds in this or not, it’s good for him to give it a shot,” Callahan said. “You don’t want to say ‘What if?’ This way he’ll know. He’s put the effort in and he won’t have to second-guess himself down the line.”