Dec. 14, 2010
HOUSTON - Four years after completing her storied collegiate diving career at the University of Houston, Jane Figueiredo and her beloved sport had grown completely apart.
The Harare, Zimbabwe native was putting in 18-hour days working as a restaurant manager, routinely arriving at work around 6 a.m. and not leaving until after midnight.
Although her bachelor's degree in Hotel and Restaurant Management would lead outsiders to believe she was simply following her career path, Figueiredo knew she was out of place. She knew her destiny was elsewhere.
"I couldn't see myself going to that type of work for 18 hours a day," Figueiredo said. "We have long hours now, but it's different. You can make an impact here. With that, it was just grinding it out at work everyday."
Once word reached her that former diving coach Dave Parrington, the same one who coached her to All-America status, was stepping down from his position at Houston, her destiny was clear.
Jane Figueiredo was meant to coach.
"Coaching is not something I've ever had to second guess myself about," she said. "I felt really comfortable in that role, there wasn't anything that was foreign to me. If it's in your blood, you just go with it."
Hall of Honor Bound
Fast forward to 2010.
Figueiredo is entering her 21st season as the head diving coach at the University of Houston after earning NCAA Diving Coach of the Year honors for the fourth time. At just over six months removed from guiding Anastasia Pozdniakova to her third NCAA individual title, the coach is hard at work shaping her 2010-11 squad.
In between practices, Figueiredo receives a call in her office from Katina Jackson. The Associate Athletics Director for Major Gifts asks Figueiredo to come to her office for important news.
"She sat me down and told me I was going to be inducted into the Hall of Honor," Figueiredo said. "I was elated."
Little did she know, the news would get even better.
"The second part was that I was going to be going in with Yulia (Pakhalina)," Figueiredo said of her former All-American diver. "The fact that I was going into the Hall of Honor, I would've waited for that, but being inducted along with Yulia was the pinnacle. Just to be with her and associated with her, we're like family. She has a little girl now and Yulia tells me that she's going to be a Cougar."
"I will be long gone by then, but maybe Yulia will be the coach, or (current senior) Lacey (Truelove) or Anastasia. They aspire to that. I would like, once my term is up, to see someone like them carry on that tradition. That would be the next best wonderful thing."
From the looks of things, she won't be "long gone" anytime soon. In each of the nine years that Conference USA has presented its Diving Coach of the Year honor, Figueiredo has been the recipient.
The longest tenured head coach on staff, Figueiredo accepted her invitation into the prestigious University of Houston Hall of Honor Class of 2010 on Nov. 4.
Winning coaching awards, however, is likely the only routine the coach is ok with leaving unchanged about her routine. Although her team's winning ways show no signs of slowing, Figueiredo can't imagine letting off the gas and becoming satisfied.
"Even now, after 21 years of coaching, I'll still come out of practice some days thinking, `Oh my gosh I don't want to do that, that was so boring. I have to come up with something new tomorrow,'" she said. "I want to spice it up, maybe change the order of the exercises or something. It was just sort of in me, I love coaching kids and we've always had a great time. I try to do something different everyday. With any sport or any type of work, if you're doing the same thing everyday it becomes very monotonous. I want to do something different."
Answering Her Calling
Rewind to 1990.
Figueiredo had just done something drastically different. She left her established career path in the restaurant management industry to follow her coaching dreams. Replacing one of her closest mentors and former coach, she never has or will hesitate on where she wanted that dream to become a reality.
"UH is a very special place and a lot people don't realize what we have here," Figueiredo said. "If it wasn't for me coming to UH, I wouldn't be coaching the type of athletes that I've been coaching. They've allowed me to do the sort of things that might not have been in the realm of my job description."
"When maybe I should've been sitting at a desk working, they let me go around the world and do what I do best. I don't want them to allow me to do that and then do poorly. I've taken it very seriously that they've allowed me to be a great coach."
What may surprise some, however, are her reasons for loving the university. The obvious ones are there; alma mater, place of employment, etc., but overcoming challenges tops them all.
When she returned to Houston as a coach, the Campus Recreation and Wellness Center Natatorium was more than a decade away from existing. Her team trained and competed in Melcher Gymnasium, the former home of the Cougars. As a Zimbabwe diver, Figueiredo grew up diving outdoors so switching over to the U.S.'s traditionally indoor diving culture was a transition she dealt with as a student-athlete.
"In Zimbabwe, we didn't really have state-of-the-art equipment, but we were always good for whatever reason," she said. "The boards in Melcher were better, but it was a very small pool. I think our girls now can't imagine what that was like, but Yulia trained in (Melcher). For her, she just got the job done. I never heard her complain ever about anything, she loved it. When you don't have anyone complaining, it's easy. It doesn't really matter."
Finding Her Philosophy
In fact, the reigning NCAA Diving Coach of the Year receives very few complaints. Since taking the reigns more than 20 years ago, Figueiredo still uses the same basic philosophy now as she did in that first year. According to her coaching ideals, having fun ranks as top priority.
"It's still all about having fun, but at the same time when you're winning is when you're having fun," Figueiredo said. "I'm a little bit different in that I might be a little more serious because I expect more from myself. When you do well you're always trying to stay ahead and stay on top. That's always a big challenge."
Figueiredo actually sees more changes in her student-athletes over the years than in herself and respects her student-athletes for their ability to balance in ways she was never asked to do. As a collegiate diver, she describes her days as much more simple.
"Back when I was diving all I had to think about was going to class and diving," Figueiredo said. "I didn't have to think about the meetings that they all have to go to, the recruiting, the community service and the tutoring they have to do. It's all so complex. Sometimes, I think it's just too much and it's very overwhelming. It's overwhelming for me so I can imagine it's very overwhelming for them. So you have to be flexible and adapt to the different things that are going on in the environment."
What hasn't changed is the foundation her sport is built on. Figueiredo will be the first to admit that diving is a difficult sport for team leaders. Unlike most sports, diving is one where each teammate is competing against one another.
According to her, when she was competing the team concept was fairly foreign. Although they rooted for their teammates to be successful, ultimately each hopes for their own win. She never thought of herself as a team leader until she moved into her coaching role. Even then, she views success from a completely different perspective.
Competing vs. Coaching
As a competitor, she reached All-America status three times in the 1-meter and twice in the 3-meter competition. She won the Southwestern Conference 3-meter title in 1984 and finished as the runner-up at the NCAA Championships later that season. Six years after graduation, she was named to the SWC All-Decade Diving Team.
When she wasn't diving for Houston, Figueiredo was competing for Zimbabwe in the 1982 World Championships and for Portugal in the 1984 Olympics and 1986 World Championships.
"Being a coach and going through all of those exciting moments is different than when you're doing it yourself," Figueiredo said. "When I was an athlete, I didn't accomplish as much as I have as a coach. I didn't win gold medals or the NCAAs, although I came pretty close. It's two very different feelings. When you're an athlete, you appreciate your coach but you have the mentality of `I did this.' I didn't realize until now that I'm a coach and see how instrumental my coach was in my success."
Considering Figueiredo has guided her athletes through numerous successes, including seven NCAA titles and 43 All-America honors, she knows a thing or two about being instrumental in her divers' accomplishments.
With Success Comes Sacrifice
However, every victory comes with a price.
"You sacrifice so much as a coach," she said. "(We sacrifice) so much family time; funerals, weddings, birthdays, all of those things that I missed and couldn't go to because I was out of the country or at a meet. When I see somebody like Yulia, Anastasia or any of my girls do well, that's the time that you really feel like all those sacrifices are worth it."
"I think if they hadn't done well, that question might be a little more difficult. Those sacrifices you make when they go out and do that well, all of the sudden they seem a lot more worthwhile."
Deciding between what is and what is not worthwhile brings Figueiredo's story full circle.
Her family, former divers and dear friends traveled thousands of miles to Houston to watch Figueiredo become forever enshrined at A Night with the Stars: Hall of Honor Gala. That group may have the most trouble understanding what makes sacrificing her time with them worthwhile, but they also realize they don't have to understand. They simply have to provide the space she needs to work, and she'll continue to do what she does best.
"Certainly I'm here because of all of them," Figueiredo said. "They've all supported me along the way. That makes it easier when you make those sacrifices and your friends and family are saying just go and do what you need to do. They get it. It's hard for them at times, but they get it."
Continuing a Tradition of Excellence
She laughs and admits both her and her divers are "sick in the head" when preparing for the NCAAs, Olympics and World Championships. Talking is not needed and the sacrifices made to compete at that level don't need to be discussed but simply accepted in stride. There is only one route to the top.
The list of vehicles that have taken her there is continuously growing, but the ones that routinely work for her may be different than expected. Positivity and drive highlight the list of what has sparked her long line of achievements.
After claiming the diving coaches' top honor for the fourth time in her career, she remarked its personal importance, considering she works in a male-dominated industry. Figueiredo isn't trying to start any sort of controversy with her feelings; rather she views the recognition amongst men as something that drives her to be better. Thus creating the first spark responsible for her success.
The other is a mindset often overlooked; yet Figueiredo swears by the power of positivity.
"You have to come everyday and be positive," she said. "You don't always have to love it, because it is hard work, but you do have to come in and give your girls your best everyday. That is a chore for anybody, waking up everyday and putting whatever it is that's bothering you outside. I've just tried to make UH my world and always be as positive, even when it's hard."
It's a skill to be commended as NCAA titles, World Championships and Olympic gold medals require an immeasurable investment by a coach who enters her third decade of investing.
Lucky for Houston, those sacrifices are nothing but a labor of love for the Hall of Honor inductee.
"For all the places I've seen, competed and coached, I've never forgotten about UH," Figueiredo said. "When Yulia stood on the podium at the Olympic Games, she was giving the Cougar sign. There's something about it that you always come back to. Yeah, I've represented Zimbabwe, Portugal and coached Russia, but really who I am - is a Cougar."