Caroline Pagac’s favorite part of being on Florida’s diving team is just that: being on the team.
Nothing is more rewarding for Caroline than being with her teammates and pushing each other to be better. It’s what motivated her to begin the sport in the first place, and what pushed her along the unorthodox path she took to Florida.
“It’s a team but it also becomes a family,” Pagac said, “It takes the right sport to build that, and diving does that.”
Pagac is not the typical Florida diver, no Olympian or All-American — in fact, she’s only been diving for a few years. She walked onto the team in 2021 after proving her value with Gator Dive Club during her first semester at Florida.
Lesley Pagac, her mother, saw her daughter’s talent at a young age.
“I remember her taking her to the playground to play with the kids and she was so much more physically agile than some of the other kids of her age,” Lesley said.
Caroline’s balance led her mother to sign her up for gymnastics, and thus began the earliest years of Pagac’s athletic career, joined by her younger sister, Amanda.
Although that stage of Caroline’s career was not so fruitful, she was always motivated by her sibling beside her.
“To be honest, I was terrible,” Caroline said, “Well, I wasn’t terrible, I worked really hard, and my little sister was actually always a little bit better than me so she really pushed me, and I kind of had that sister rivalry.”
Those around Caroline noticed she shared the traits of a great teammate and leader from a young age. Her mother recalled a state gymnastics meet when Caroline scored a 9.4. Her sister, the only remaining competitor, edged her out with a 9.45.
“Caroline jumped up and went running over to her, lifted her, twirled her around and was more excited that Amanda got the score, than her getting second place,'' Lesley said. “It was the most touching thing.”
The feeling of celebration and a family environment have always been of utmost importance for Caroline, but she began having her doubts whether that environment was always there. She said the gymnastics atmosphere wasn’t as inviting, and her sister agreed.
“The gym that we both went to, it was a very, very verbally, emotionally and psychologically abusive environment,” Amanda said. “The coaches were really, really bad people. It did cause me and my sister a lot of sports trauma.”
Caroline ultimately left gymnastics at 13.
“It’s different when you’re that young and you’re working that hard and your heart’s just not in it, there’s a dichotomy there that you don’t want to be there.” she said.
Caroline chose to spend her time teaching gymnastics, and her mother said she set out to treat her students differently than she had been treated.
While Caroline bonded with her students and enjoyed the teaching process, Amanda knew she missed the competition. Teaching couldn’t replicate the team environment, and Caroline felt the difference, too.
“I was like ‘Wait a minute, maybe I have more dreams that are unfinished. I have unfinished business,’” she said.
Upon entering high school and observing meets and practices for her school’s scholastic season her freshman year, Caroline decided she would take up diving with the local Coral Springs Diving club.
She could only offer a small commitment to the team at first, only able to practice once a week with her parents working full-time jobs and no car of her own. However, the impact of the team environment was noticeable from the start, especially compared to gymnastics.
“For diving, it’s a night-and-day difference,” Caroline said.
Her sister saw a noticeable improvement in Caroline’s demeanor after joining the team. Caroline was eager to return to an environment where she could connect with her teammates, and it brought her a lot of fulfillment despite diving being a casual endeavor at first.
“I wasn’t a good diver,” Pagac said, “I loved it, I still love it, but it was just fun then.”
This all changed when she got a car before her senior year, now able to take herself to practice up to six days a week. That’s when Caroline’s club coach, Michelle Sandelin, told her she had a future in diving.
“She is literally my second mom. I love her,” Pagac said about Sandelin. “If it wasn't for her, I would not be here because she told me to look at different dive programs and told me I could do this.”
Pagac put her head down and worked her senior year, and when she looked up, there were collegiate diving offers in front of her. Unfortunately, there were none from her dream school, UF.
She was left with a choice: forgo attending Florida, where she was admitted through the standard process, and choose to dive at the College of New Jersey or George Washington University, or abandon her diving offers to attend UF.
It wasn’t an easy choice for her to make. If possible, Pagac hoped to settle for a school similar to Florida academically and continue diving, but her love for the school and the financial burden of attending college out of state was insurmountable.
“I took visits to two schools, and I loved them,” Pagac said. “But they weren’t Florida.”
Despite being content in attending the school she’s envisioned herself at for so long, Pagac couldn’t help but feel as though she had let those around her down by not accepting any of her offers.
“I feel like I spent these three years [diving] for nothing,” Caroline said.
On the contrary, Sandelin insisted Caroline would dive at Florida and put the plan into motion by putting Caroline in contact with Gators head diving coach Brian Gillooly.
Without any space for walk-ons at the time, Gillooly handed Pagac an opportunity: join the local club diving team run by Gillooly’s wife and fellow coach, Lauren Gillooly, and maybe there would be a slim chance for her to walk on in the future.
“I’ve made the offer and I’ve never had anybody even come to the club practice,” Gillooly said, “She was the first one, and with gratitude, she was thankful for the opportunity. That was a lot of points in her favor.”
A long road sat ahead if Caroline wanted any semblance of a chance to make the team. Her first-semester schedule consisted of classes in the morning and taking public transportation to the outdoor pool for club practices at night before returning to her dorm to prepare for the next day.
As the semester picked up and the winter months came along, the journey became increasingly difficult.
“I was like ‘Okay, it’s cold, I’m freezing my behind off, it’s dark outside, I’m sitting at a bus stop by myself, I have my French notes out because I have an exam tomorrow, and I’m not even on the diving team.” Pagac said, “What am I doing?’”
Although there were times Pagac was on the brink of abandoning her quest, she held onto hope by grasping the one thing she desired the most: a team atmosphere.
“Once I met [coach Gillooly] and Lauren and I saw their personalities and the atmosphere that they cultivated,” Pagac said, “I was like, ‘I want to be a part of this, and if I don’t put everything I have into trying to be a part of this, I’m gonna regret it later in life.’”
Eventually, she broke through. In January, after months of observation and a few weeks of discussion with his wife, Brian Gillooly offered Caroline a letter of intent to join the Gators diving program.
“After three, four months, she put all my doubts aside.” Gillooly said, “You can’t not be a fan of Caroline once you get to know her.”
Caroline felt as though all her work so far had finally paid off. She had been waiting so long for the moment that when it arrived, it didn’t feel real.
Pagac officially joined the diving program in May and didn’t miss a beat. Despite having less experience than her highly accomplished teammates, Caroline took to the team right away and cemented herself in the roster.
“She jumped right in, just like she did with the club, and became an instant leader on the team as far as her attitude and her spirit, her positivity and all that stuff is infectious.” Gillooly said,
“She brought that to the team day one.”
Now, Caroline is approaching the second half of her first year on the team, with four meets under her belt and an NCAA zone qualifying score for the platform dive event. Despite the recent success and fulfilling her dream, she’s still grateful and motivated.
“I compete against myself every day,” Caroline said. “That kind of atmosphere is really applicable to everything in your life, and kind of getting that reinforced in the pool is something that’s really special and something I was working for.”
Caroline’s attitude and work ethic is something the team values, and she plays her role to the fullest extent.
“She tells me, ‘Thank you for giving her a spot on the team,’ and I tell her she earned it,” Gillooly said, “I didn’t give her anything at all.”
Caroline Pagac is exactly where she belongs: with her team.
Jackson Castellano is a second-year sports journalism student and the assistant sports editor at the Alligator. In the past, he has covered UF basketball and baseball for the Alligator and was an associate editor at ClutchPoints.