Éloïse Bélanger spent a year dreaming of using her local pools’ diving boards when she was a child.
Divers had to be 7 years old, but Bélanger was only 6 at the time.
“I really wanted to go on the boards and jump off, but I wasn’t allowed,” Bélanger said. “So that summer when I was 7 years old, I spent my whole summer jumping off.”
When the following school year began, her parents put her in her first formal diving classes.
But a move to Los Angeles tested her love for diving. Bélanger grew up in Montreal, and moved to California in the fall of 2015 to join UCLA diving. Bélanger didn’t speak much English initially, missed her family and friends and had to acclimate to living in an entirely new country while simultaneously adjusting to a new team and coach.
“To be quite honest, it was really, really hard, and I probably cried every single day of my first quarter here,” Bélanger said. “For the first time in my life, I was so lonely, so lost. … It wasn’t my language, I didn’t have my friends anymore, I didn’t have my family, school was all different.”
Bélanger said although everything else was different, she kept the same weight training regimen that she had used while in Canada, and this helped her feel a bit more comfortable when training with new teammates and coaches.
Despite how difficult those first few months were, Bélanger said she never felt tempted to quit diving altogether.
“There were times where … the motivation wasn’t there as much, but I never thought like ‘I’m done, I’m going to quit now,’” Bélanger said.
Diving coach Tom Stebbins said he noticed Bélanger struggling to adjust to Los Angeles and UCLA diving and contacted Bélanger’s father, Ghislain Bélanger, during Éloïse’s freshman year to seek advice on how to help her.
“(Her father) asked me to keep fighting to try to get her to understand and keep fighting to get her to change,” Stebbins said. “I’m really glad he said that to me, because I feel like that was kind of a turning point where I felt like she and I started to work together more cohesively, more as a team, as opposed to coach (and) athlete.”
Éloïse Bélanger overcame her struggles to claim runner-up in the 1-meter event at the NCAA Championship, and was named the Pac-12 Diving Freshman of the Year during the 2015-2016 season. She set a new UCLA record at the time of 336.00 in the process.
“It’s been wonderful to see her overcoming her fears and creating links within the community of UCLA,” Ghislain Bélanger said. “She had to learn to balance school and sport, and she had to work a lot harder, since school is a lot more difficult than it was here. She had to find that compromise.”
This season, Éloïse Bélanger won 10 out of the 18 events that she has competed in, including all three events at a meet against rival No. 8 USC. She also took home the Pac-12 title in both the 1-meter and 3-meter events at the conference championships. In the 3-meter, Bélanger broke her own personal record for the second time this season, posting a score of 369.75.
Bélanger is still competing on the Canadian senior national team while at UCLA. In January, she went home to compete in the Winter Senior National Diving Championships in Canada, during which she placed first in the 1-meter and third in the 3-meter.
Stebbins said that despite it being difficult at times to balance competing in two teams, Bélanger has gained a lot from competing at an international level frequently.
“I can’t say enough about how steely she is in competition, and she’s not an easy out,” Stebbins said. “People don’t walk in and be like ‘I got this’ against her. She makes it really hard on people and that’s what we want.”
Bélanger said that the more demanding workouts required on her national team and competing at the international level make her less nervous during UCLA competition.
“I think that coming here with experience with national diving and international meets just makes all these meets here almost look smaller,” Bélanger said. “I think for all the other meets you feel less pressure because you’re used to having more pressure.”
Bélanger will have to use all of her cumulative diving experiences, both from international and Bruin teams, to succeed at the NCAAs in a few weeks. Stebbins said he believes Bélanger has much more to show in the coming weeks, as well as next season.
“When she stands in the moment, there are times where (the pressure) overwhelms her, and she starts to question what she is,” Stebbins said. “When she is able to rise above that, and when she can just exhale and get her body set, she’s pretty tough.”