Three days a week, Ida Baker senior Sean O’Connor makes the 20-minute drive from Cape Coral to Pine Island Pool to train with volunteer coach Jim Runas.
A bond that was formed five years ago while the Chicago-native Runas was teaching a lifeguarding class at North Fort Myers High has positioned O’Connor atop the diving scene in Class 2A.
But the connection almost wasn’t forged as Runas was stricken with kidney failure and hospitalized in 2007.
“When I was in the hospital with kidney failure I said to my wife, ‘Look I have to pass this on,’ ” Runas said. “She said ‘Pass what on?’ and I said, ‘Diving.’ “
Runas, 52 and a U.S. Navy and Marine Corps veteran, was introduced to diving by his father, who turned him upside down and told him to dive into Lake Michigan as a 5-year-old.
That began his diving career, which saw him compete collegiately at the University of Illinois-Chicago and enjoy a professional diving career that lasted a decade.
Runas made the move to Fort Myers in 1998 with his wife Judy and it has been his permanent residence since.
O’Connor, 18, a Boston native, moved to Fort Myers eight years ago with his mom Lorna, dad Paul, and younger brother Jimmy.
Lorna is a science teacher for upperclassmen at Island Coast High School and stays on O’Connor about his grades; she does a good job of that as the senior holds a 3.4 GPA at Ida Baker.
A former gymnast, O’Connor had issues learning to dive when he first began receiving instruction from Runas in 2007.
“You know gymnasts always land on their feet; getting him to go in head first was a big problem,” Runas said. “Eventually, I would say after about six months, I finally got him to go in head first. And I pushed and I pushed. I’m a screamer. I’ll holler and I’ll throw chairs; I’ll do anything it takes.”
Runas’ military background compels him to fashion himself as somewhat of a Bob Knight of diving and his methods work.
O’Connor has reached the state meet in diving since his freshman year, placing as high as fourth as a sophomore.
He placed second at the Region 2A-4 meet as a sophomore and junior but broke through to win his first regional title on Nov. 1 at FGCU.
“It was more of a relief because I wanted to do that for a while,” O’Connor said. “I would love to win states, but it’s a lot more realistic to win regionals. I just haven’t been able to do it; I’ve always been so close, but this time I finally got it.”
O’Connor will be competing in states without Runas at his side for the first time today because Runas can’t made the drive to Orlando for personal reasons.
But O’Connor said he feels comfortable enough to do it without Runas as his voice is engrained in his head every time he pops out of the water.
“He’s taking it well. I wish him all the luck in the world,” Runas said. “I believe in myself that he’s a winner, and if he is, God bless him. A lot of work is put into him, and he’s put a lot of work into this. He’s a good boy and I just hope he wins.”