DETROIT – A competitive gymnast for more than a decade, it wasn’t long ago that Mikaela Senkus decided to make a splash. Following a broken foot and a hip injury – both occurring in middle school – she gave up the balance beam for a diving board.
“At that point, I just felt burnt out from gymnastics,” said Senkus, a junior student-athlete in Wayne State University’s College of Engineering. “I didn’t see myself becoming a college gymnast. But I knew that I still wanted to do a sport in college.”
The pool is where she landed a collegiate opportunity. But just competing wouldn’t be good enough, which is why being named the 2023 Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (GLIAC) women’s diver of the year is beyond gratifying for the alumna of the Utica Academy of International Studies in Sterling Heights, Michigan.
“Winning diver of the year was very rewarding because I’ve put in so much work,” Senkus said. “Just knowing that every practice that I had – whether it’s been really tough or a good one – put me on the right path.”
In last weekend’s GLIAC swim and dive championships, Senkus locked up the annual award by finishing first in both the one-meter (432.5) and three-meter (474.15) finals. In both events, she defeated last year’s diver of the year, Grand Valley State University senior Gracyn Segard.
“Gracyn is such an amazing diver that competing with her brings out a better diver in me,” Senkus said. “She’s obviously at the top, and knowing that she’s going to be on her A-game brings out my best.”
Senkus is the Warriors’ third female to earn recognition as conference diver of the year, joining Elizabeth Rawlings (2017) and Paige Kortman (2014, 2013).
Senkus will travel to Indianapolis to compete in the NCAA diving pre-qualification round on March 7. If she qualifies, she will advance to the NCAA Division II championships, which will also be held in Indianapolis from March 8 to 11.
At last year’s national championships in Greensboro, North Carolina, Senkus finished third (433.3) in the one-meter dive behind West Florida’s Kelsey DeJesus (434.5) and Segard (459.75).
A returning first time All-American, Senkus has been the most-decorated diver in the conference this season, earning 40% of the diver of the week awards. Twice she was named diver of the week three out of four weeks. She’s earned the honor six times this season; seven times in her college career.
The type of success Senkus has experienced in such a short career — especially this season — is remarkable, considering she didn’t take diving seriously until her junior year while competing for Eisenhower High School in Shelby Township, where she was athletically eligible because Utica Academy doesn’t offer sports.
“I know a lot of divers who were former gymnasts just because of the transfer over of sports and the spatial awareness,” she said. “So, I tried it, but it was more of a fun activity for me in ninth and 10th grade. It was in 11th grade when I actually started taking it seriously and thinking that I could actually see myself doing this in college.”
At Eisenhower, Senkus was on the swim and dive team with current Wayne State teammates Amelia Plonis and Abby Warner. As a senior, Senkus was named team captain and won the Macomb County dive championship (330.45). That year, she finished 10th in the MHSAA Division 1 state meet.
“I’ve always had very high expectations for myself,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to do everything I could to be the best, whether that meant reading a bunch of books outside of class or doing my own research. And with diving, I would always do more like going home and doing abdominal workouts or watch dive videos. I set pretty high expectations and I love the sport so much that I want to keep working at it. I want to do my best in it so it doesn’t feel like a chore.”
Success in the classroom isn’t much of a burden, either, for Senkus, who carries a 3.95 cumulative GPA.
“The classes have been so intriguing that I want to learn more,” said Senkus, who was named first-team Scholar All-America last year. “I actually want to understand the material so that the grade itself just comes with it.”
Majoring in civil and environmental engineering, Senkus says her love of science, technology, engineering and math was nurtured by annual visits to her dad’s workplace on Take Your Daughter to Work Day.
“Growing up, I was always more of the math and science girl,” said Senkus, who took a full load of International Baccalaureate courses in high school. “I loved learning about those subjects, especially since my dad was an engineer and I would always go to work with him. He worked with connectors at the time when I was little, so I would play around with the quality control. Being exposed to that so young definitely is what guided me to this path. It definitely opened the field to me.”
Last summer, Senkus had an internship with Detroit AirNet and the Ecology Center, where she helped distribute monitoring systems to schools and civic organizations in southwest Detroit. She also worked with different groups and youth organizations, teaching them about the importance of air quality.
“We were able to donate flow air monitors that the kids could use,” she said. “They used apps to read the live results, so the kids got to learn firsthand about air quality. It was a great opportunity to explain the importance of the environment and community-led science within it.”
Eventually, Senkus hopes to work in structural engineering with a focus on sustainability. She credits professor Naveen Mital for her interest in the specialty field. But until then, she knows there’s juggling left to do between the classroom and the pool.
“Obviously, school does need to be prioritized; it does come first,” she said. “If I have an exam coming up, I can’t put all of my effort into dive practice; I still need to study. Fortunately, I do keep a balance between them to make sure I’m putting emphasis on both so I am successful in both.”
(Hero image photo courtesy of Zack Belsky)