Joey Cifelli is supposed to be at a disadvantage.
But for the last two years, that hasn’t mattered to Marian Catholic’s only boys diver.
Because Marian does not offer a boys swimming and diving program, the 15-year-old sophomore has been forced to seek outside help to perfect his craft. And in doing so, Cifelli has given up the right to compete during the regular high school season.
Cifelli, of Chicago Heights, trains with Homewood-Flossmoor swimming coach Rick Carlson and University of Illinois-Chicago women’s diving coach Susan Bromberg year round. And when he isn’t working with Carlson and Bromberg, his parents take turns driving their son 80 miles roundtrip to UIC during the week to work with the Windy City Diving Club.
Due to his involvement with the Chicago-based diving club, Illinois High School Association regulations prevent Cifelli from attending regular season high school meets. It isn’t until season’s end that the young standout gets his chance to compete at the high school level. And it isn’t until the postseason that Cifelli finds out what his competition has to offer.
“Going into high school season is hard because I start pretty much at the end,” Cifelli said. “And it’s nerve wracking because I don’t know who I’m up going up against because I don’t see any of these kids all year long.”
Despite what should have been unfair odds, Cifelli defied logic and bested his sectional competition in his first two prep swimming campaigns. Last year, a score of 436.7 at the Lincoln Way-East Sectional not only placed Cifelli first, but also set the meet record. Last Saturday, he topped himself with a score of 501.25 at the Lincoln Way-West Sectional, and again set the meet standard while claiming a victory.
Even more astonishingly, Cifelli accomplished both feats without an official coach poolside. Carlson’s obligations to Homewood-Flossmoor prevent him from accompanying Cifelli, while Bromberg is barred from coaching her private student because of IHSA rules.
Instead, Cifelli is only represented by Marian girls swimming coach Scott Scanlon.
“It’s tough not having my own coach out there, because you sort of feel all alone at times,” Cifelli said.
As of late, Cifelli hasn’t had a problem with being alone at the top. And now he’s hoping to take it one step further.
At last season’s state competition, Cifelli surprised himself with a 10th-place finish. But despite carrying an even better sectional score into this Saturday’s state finals at New Trier Township High School, the sophomore isn’t taking anything for granted.
“Sectional scores, to me, don’t matter at all. Each meet is scored differently,” Cifelli said. “I know there are other good divers in the state, and at this point, it’s anybody’s gold medal.
“I know I have two more seasons to win state, but I’m ready for it now.”
Heading into the weekend, Cifelli is seeded third based on his sectional score behind (Normal) University High School senior Brandis Heffner (No. 1), and Downers Grove South senior Ryan Kujawa (No. 2).
And while his recent track record may suggest otherwise, the younger Cifelli isn’t impervious to pressure.
“I’m definitely nervous, who wouldn’t be?” Cifelli said. “With all of the expectations, it makes you more scared. But I’m not worried about what other people are expecting out of me. I’m only expecting what I’m expecting out of me.
“I’m just going to relax and have fun with it, because that’s when I do my best.”