As she stares down at the glassy blue water from the edge of the 3-meter board, Tori Franz bops her head to Owl City’s “Verge,” talks to her coach about the ice cream she ate for breakfast and models each of her dives at least twice over.
When she is on the diving board, Franz’s energy is positively infectious.
But behind her seemingly carefree demeanor is a much more woeful reality.
Franz has Crohn’s disease, a rare, chronic inflammatory bowel illness.
Three million Americans suffer potential life-threatening complications and an array of symptoms from anemia to ulcers, vomiting, fevers and fatigue as a result of Crohn’s.
Every airborne twist and turn is a plunge into the unknown.
Franz, a junior diver from Buffalo, has suffered from Crohn’s disease since the age of 10, enduring debilitating pain and weakness that can only be remedied by the slew of medications and medical specialists at her disposal. She undergoes a back-and-forth hour-and-a-half drive to and from the University of Rochester Medical Center for her treatments, while meticulously watching every single thing she puts into her body.
The fact that she is here — a Division I student-athlete with even greater aspirations — is a testament to her resilience and dedication.
“I didn’t think that my body would hold up as well as it has. So every day now is just a bonus round,” Franz said in an interview with The Spectrum.
Franz views her illness not as a barrier to success, but as a motivator that can elevate her to an even greater level. She has pushed through mental and physical barriers time and time again to reach the gold standard of athleticism: the Olympic trials.
“The sky [is] the limit for her with her physical talent for the sport of diving,” UB Diving Coach Russ Dekker told The Spectrum.
And Franz doesn’t just excel in the pool; aside from 20 hours of intensive weekly DI training as a member of UB’s diving team, she also juggles getting her biomedical engineering degree and has a 3.4 GPA.
“She’s constantly doing everything she needs to do to be the best person and the best athlete she can,” Franz’s mother, Linda Franz, said.
‘We tried to find something else’
Franz’s first sport was gymnastics, as the eager 8-year-old tumbled and somersaulted her way into budding stardom at Tonawanda’s Gleason School of Gymnastics.
No stranger to hard work, the gymnast practiced for three hours a day, six days a week, and loved every second of it.
That all changed in 2011.
Day by day, Franz’s body grew steadily weaker. Her knees regularly caved in as she struggled to match her usual energy levels. Her bones began to stick out as she lost significant weight. Her body immediately rejected everything she ate.
This left Franz in a year-long state of pain and suffering.
She cried on and off for almost an entire year, lying in hospital beds and facing the looming threat of surgeries and the potential of getting even sicker.
A confusing reality no 10-year-old should ever have to face, and no medical professional seemed to have direct answers for.
“It was heartbreaking, honestly,” Linda said. “She was so sick, she had just turned 10 and she was only 30 pounds because she couldn’t keep food in and nobody knew what to do or how to help her.”
Gymnastics became unviable for Franz. It made her symptoms consistently flare up and made it almost impossible for her to cope with her disease. So, sensing the inevitable end of her gymnastics career, the young athlete decided to retire her leotard and search for a new passion.
As the years went by, doctors began to understand Franz’s condition better. For the first time, her medications started to be tailored to her Crohn’s and her diet was being closely monitored and was starting to return to its normal breadth.
As she started to regain her energy, Franz also began regaining the athletic craving that she had held as a gymnast.
So, equipped with Infliximab — an immunosuppressive drug more popularly known by its brand name, Remicade — and her trademarked smile, Franz decided to go down a different route: diving.
“Once my mom got tired of me jumping off the couch and climbing up the walls, we kind of tried to find something else,” Franz said.
Like everything else she has done in her life, Franz dove right into the sport. She became involved in the Wings Diving Club — where Dekker is a coach — and the Jr. Griff’s Club, which is run through Canisius College. She started attending four weekly training sessions and gave the sport her absolute all.
Her natural athleticism and foundation in twisting and turning provided her the perfect springboard into the blue waters of the diving scene.
Her background as a gymnast also gave her the ideal introduction to the board, with textbook experiences behind her.
“I got to basically do all the same things, even though the mechanics were very different … in gymnastics you want to land on your feet, [in] diving you want to land on your head,” Franz said, as she bellowed with laughter.
But it still wasn’t an easy transition.
Franz had a crippling fear of heights.
This push-and-pull between her body and her mind proved to be challenging for the new diver.
“Diving is 90% mental and then the other 10% physical, because it’s like, ‘Oh, let’s just jump off of a building,’” Franz said.
Her first three years in the pool, Franz wasn’t able to do many of the dives expected of someone her age.
“A lot of kids give up if they can’t do a dive for a week and she couldn’t do a bunch of dives for three years and here she is,” Linda said.
Those three years of struggles may have forced other divers out of the pool, but not Franz.
“[It’s] when you know someone could be so amazing at what they put their mind to and literally the only person stopping them [is] themselves,” Wings Diving Club coach Joshua Larcom said about why he never gave up faith in Franz’s diving ability.
‘Terrifying or not, try and do it anyway’
Through all the highs and lows of life, Franz has embraced one idea: growing comfortable with the uncomfortable.
She has accepted the stomach-churning that either makes her mind race and body tense, or forces her to run to the toilet and vomit.
Franz quickly employed her second-to-none work ethic in her new sport to overcome her life-defining condition and fear of heights. “She was the first one at practice and she was the last one that left,” Larcom said. “She [would] literally push herself nonstop.”
Franz says this is just the way she lives her life.
“If there’s something you want to do or somewhere you want to go, even if it’s terrifying, you should try and do it anyway,” Franz said about her mantra for persevering through adversity.
As a 17-year-old, Franz found her stride. She settled on the more palatable 1-meter and 3-meter dive heights, and in the process, became a six-time USA Diving National Qualifier. It was then that she started to seriously think about her options for DI-level diving.
“Once we got over some of [the mental blocks], she really took off and progressed at a fast rate,” Dekker said.
A number of DI programs reached out to the budding star as she was about to venture into college: “she had a lot of interest all across the country,” Linda said.
Her recruitment even promoted a friendly battle between Dekker and Larcom — two of her coaches at the Wings Diving Club, and collegiate coaching rivals at UB and Canisius, respectively.
But despite receiving a number of college offers, the Buffalo native acted pragmatically, deciding to major in biomedical engineering at UB and dive for the Bulls.
UB’s proximity to home and her already-established relationship with Dekker made her decision to stay in the Queen City and compete for her mentor easy.
Franz also chose to live at her family home for the duration of her college career, which allowed her to put her health above all else.
“I knew I wanted to stay close to home just with my situation,” she said.
Though all of this would never have been possible without a single phone call.
A call to Olympic swimmer Kathleen Baker, who has battled with Crohn’s too since the age of 12.
“It was nice to like, talk to someone who gets it,” Franz said, “if I didn’t have that conversation, I don’t think I would have dove in college because I wasn’t sure if my body could handle it.”
‘I gotta make some plans’
In college, Franz faces 7 a.m. alarms and 20 hours of seven-day-a-week training, in 8-10 a.m. and 2-4 p.m. time slots.
Between hard-hitting training and Navier-Stokes equations, Franz barely has time to catch her breath — let alone cater to an unforgiving disease.
“It’s not entirely realistic sometimes with this kind of disease where you know it beats down your body. Or any disease for that matter,” Franz said about managing her commitments.
But a cautious attitude is no match for her ambitions and drive.
“It’s a good kind of hard,” Franz said about balancing everything on her plate.
Now, Franz has surpassed many of the very same athletes who bested her on the diving board as a kid.
This season alone, Franz has managed to clinch the Mid-American Conference Diver of the Year award — making waves as the second Bull to ever do so — and placed first in the 1-meter dive at the MAC Championships.
This enabled her to qualify for the coveted NCAA Championships in Atlanta, where she finished in 30th place in the 1-meter dive and in 41st place in the 3-meter dive against competitors from top programs like UCLA and Stanford.
But the real highlight of Franz’s year was still yet to come.
May 2021 brought Franz’s biggest success to date, as the diver finally clinched the goal she and Dekker mapped out when she was 15 years old: an invitation to compete at the Olympic trials.
The 10-year-old girl who teared up at a future filled with late-night medical visits and early-morning doses of medications she could barely pronounce had made it.
The 13-year-old girl who stood breathless and immobile every time she attempted a dive had made it.
A feat of prime athleticism was under Franz’s belt, all while she battled her body and mind every step of the way.
Her first port of celebration wasn’t the usual drinks with friends or a big cake and meal out with her family.
It was a workout on her trampoline to get ready for the big day.
“I was like, ‘Oh! OK, I gotta make some plans’,” Franz said about her initial thoughts.
“You just think back to her in a hospital bed with such a sad face with tubes coming out everywhere. From that to this is just, I can’t put it into words,” Linda said.
Franz’s goal had long been to make the trials — “even more so than making the Olympics,” Linda said. “She wanted to make the trials just to show that she could compete and even though she wasn’t healthy, that she could work hard enough … and deal with enough obstacles to be there with the best.”
Both Dekker and Larcom (who spent 2020-21 as UB’s assistant diving coach) were able to accompany Franz to Indianapolis.
“It [is] an extremely hard meet to qualify for, for anyone,” Dekker said of Franz’s participation in the trials.
Franz placed 24th out of 25 participants in the 3-meter springboard at the Olympic trials — not the best result, but an impressive accomplishment nonetheless for a diver from UB.
Her success is largely born from her work ethic and stubbornness, her coaches say.
“When she sets her mind to something, she will make sure she does everything she can to get there, regardless of what it is. Because her stubbornness will not let her do anything else,” Larcom said.
Affectionately calling her “nugget,” Larcom and the rest of Franz’s coaches, teammates, family and friends have given her the stability and security to freely pursue her dreams — chronic illness or not.
Whatever the diver feels she needs, those around her facilitate and trust her judgment. Even UB’s swimming staff — head coach Andy Bashor and assistant coach Morgan Bullock — is always ready at her side, “even though we’re on separate sides of the pool,” Franz said.
And it’s not just her coaches and teammates who have her back; it’s also her mother, who Tori counts as her biggest supporter.
“We’re a really good team,” Linda, who is constantly by her daughter’s side keeping an eye out for her health, said.
Anything could happen tomorrow
Franz is open about her illness to an extent, with her teammates being fully clued in and ready to support her should she need it.
“They’re some of my best friends for sure … we’re really able to have a tight-knit little family right there, inside a little family of swim and dive,” Franz said.
UB’s five current divers “definitely know my situation. It’s not something I hide. If I have to run to the bathroom, I have to run to the bathroom,” Franz said with a laugh.
Despite her vulnerability, Franz is hesitant to reveal the full extent of her pain.
Linda says Tori has a “close couple of friends that she can kind of pour her heart out to,” because “she doesn’t want to come off as somebody who’s a whiner.”
Franz wonders if and when this suffering will become too much to bear. “She really does have a great outlook and it’s very real and very honest, brutally honest actually, because this could disappear any day,” Linda said.
Franz acknowledges her reality and the blessings she has had so far.
“I’ve been really lucky so far,” Franz said. “In the last few years, I’ve been pretty much as close to remission as I can be.”
But the diver is quick to see if, and how fast, her luck could run out in the future.
“There’s very few people that know the real magnitude of things … even a simple ear infection, you know, it can turn into something much more complicated,” Linda said.
Franz could wake up any day now and be immobile on the board, unable to pursue her passions in life through no fault of her own.
With possibilities of becoming a diving coach and a biomedical engineer very much on the cards if Franz can’t go on with diving, the young athlete still smiles just as broadly.
Franz’s hope and enthusiasm will forever outweigh her statistic as someone living with Crohn’s.
Living day by day, she never takes anything for granted.
“So we’re gonna take these wins as we get them and we’re gonna just enjoy every minute,” Linda said. “Because we don’t know what tomorrow's gonna bring.”
Sophie McNally is an assistant sports editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Sophie McNally is an assistant sports editor at The Spectrum. She is a history major studying abroad for a year from Newcastle University in the UK. In her spare time, she can be found blasting The 1975 or Taylor Swift and rowing on a random river at 5 a.m.