EVERETT — During a track and field practice two springs ago, Cascade High School coach Eric Smith was instructing a group of triple jumpers when something caught his attention.
Joseph Hofman, then a freshman hurdler for the Bruins, was doing backflips from a standing position.
Smith, who also coaches the Cascade swim and dive team, was intrigued.
“I looked over and was like, ‘Hey, what are you doing?’” Smith said. “I think he thought he was in trouble. He was like, ‘I’m really sorry coach. I didn’t mean to be messing around.’
“And I was like, ‘No, what are you doing in the winter season?’”
Smith believed Hofman’s acrobatic ability might translate well to the diving board. Hofman, who developed his aerial skills during four years of gymnastics lessons from ages 8 to 12, said he’d never seriously considered diving prior to that moment.
“It all went from there,” he said. “I don’t think I really thought about it hard before that. I think it took somebody saying, ‘You could be good at this’ for me to actually realize that I should try it.”
Diving turned out to be a perfect fit for Hofman, who capped his first season last February with a seventh-place finish at the Class 4A state meet.
Now, less than two years after he took up the sport, the Cascade junior is the top-seeded diver in 4A heading into the boys swim and dive championships Friday and Saturday at King County Aquatic Center in Federal Way.
“It’s kind of crazy to think that it’s been such a short amount of time,” Hofman said. “Two years ago, I would have never even imagined myself up on a board. It all kind of happened so fast.”
Hofman began diving in the summer of 2016, training once or twice per week at the Snohomish Aquatic Center with veteran coach Marc Hughes.
“I felt like I had a little bit of an advantage, just because I had some of that air awareness from gymnastics,” Hofman said. “But I definitely hit some bumps in the road.”
Hofman said one of his biggest initial challenges was getting acclimated to diving headfirst, as opposed to landing feet-first in gymnastics.
“Learning how to do an extra half-rotation was hard for me,” he said.
Another major obstacle was becoming comfortable wearing only a Speedo.
“(It was) getting over the feeling of being in a Speedo and being so exposed,” Hofman said. “Once you’re on a board, it’s you, the water (and) everyone else just kind of staring at you. It’s completely quiet and you’re just really vulnerable. And I think that’s kind of a cool thing, yet kind of a scary thing about the sport.
“When I was first starting,” he added, “I thought that maybe I didn’t really want to do this, just because of that vulnerability and because I’d never done it before. But I think after being pushed by my coaches to overcome that fear and uncomfortableness, I was able to find something that I really love.”
Hofman joined the Cascade dive team last season as a sophomore and continued to develop his skills under the tutelage of diving guru JoLynne Abbe, who coaches the Cascade, Everett, Jackson and Archbishop Murphy divers.
“He has that inner drive,” said Abbe, who has coached the sport for more than four decades. “He wants to do well, and then he also has the body and the skill to do that.
“He’s one of those kinds of kids that’s just all-around athletic,” she added. “He just came into the world with some abilities that we molded into this.”
Hofman highlighted a strong start to his diving career last season by scoring 355 points at the state meet, landing himself a spot on the podium.
“He was beaming last year when he was on that podium, because that was not even where we thought we’d be,” Abbe said. “He was ecstatic.”
Hofman trained this past offseason and has taken his diving to the next level by gaining strength and honing his form.
He said some of his biggest technical improvements have come in the approach and hurdle, which serve as the lead-up to springing off the board. He also said he’s gained confidence and increased the difficulty of his dives.
Abbe said Hofman’s greatest strength is his kinesthetic awareness.
“He can get up in the air and be upside down, and his brain knows where he’s at,” she said. “He just kind of has that. It’s an awareness about one’s self in space.”
Hofman enters this week’s state championships with a top score this season of 506.7 points, which is just 2.4 points shy of the 4A state-meet record set in 2002. The Wenatchee duo of Eathyn Geren (483.7 points) and Jaxon Cosina (472.7) are the only other divers in the 4A field who have topped 450 points this season.
“It’s a little nerve-wrecking going into state,” Hofman said of being the top seed. “But this is something that I love to do and I’m just going to have fun doing it.
“I’ll take the circumstances as they come and I’m just going to have fun with it, because at the end of the day, diving is something that I love to do.”
Hofman said diving can be a stress relief in the midst of a busy slate filled with academics, sports and student leadership.
In addition to diving, Hofman plays club volleyball and was selected as a co-captain on the Cascade tennis team for next season. He also serves as the Western Washington student representative on the State Board of Education and is set to become Cascade’s ASB president for the 2018-19 school year.
“My life can get so stressful at times (with) all the other things I’m doing,” Hofman said. “Diving is kind of that escape for me, because when you’re up on the board, really, it’s just you. All you can hear is your heart beat and the water running below you. All you can focus on is the board and the dive.
“It kind of feels like I’m at home, almost.”
Reflecting on his journey these past two years, Hofman said he’s definitely glad he chose to pursue diving.
“I really just cherish every single moment that I have on that board with the great diving community,” he said. “It’s definitely something that’s become a huge part of my life and something that I love doing.”