Sydney Hanson was in a dark place last year.

After bursting onto the scene as a freshman and placing fourth at the Iowa state diving competition, the Bettendorf teenager missed all of last season.

What started as a headache from a dive at a summer camp turned into post-concussion syndrome and resulted in a series of symptoms that kept her off the board for more than 13 months.

"Being away from everything that I loved, stuck in a dark room for a year, it was too much mentally," Hanson said. "I was in a bad place."

Hanson has returned to 1-meter diving this fall and has teamed with fellow junior Makayla Hughbanks to form one of the top tandems in the state.

Hughbanks is seeded sixth (451.10) and Hanson eighth (441.60) among the 32 competitors at Friday morning's state meet in Marshalltown.

"I was by myself last year, so it has been really nice this year I have someone to push me," Hughbanks said. "We help each other out with our dives, and during competition there is no type of mean attitude toward each other."

Hanson was a gymnast for eight years until stress fractures in both of her knees required her to give it up. She started diving the summer before she went into sixth grade.

Hughbanks, a competitive tumbler, is only in her second season of diving. Bettendorf coach Mike Ahrens encouraged Hughbanks to come out after watching her dive on the board in his gym class as a freshman.

"I'm loving it," Hughbanks said. "There was definitely a lot of challenges. In tumbling, you are thinking more about stretching and going a distance as where with diving you have to get close to the board. It is very different."

For Hanson, she experienced a life-changing moment during the summer after her freshman season. 

While at a diving camp, she was doing a 2 1/2 pike off 3 meters.

"I had done the dive several times before, but it was a hard impact," she said. "I went into the water nicely, but I got a little bit of a headache."

It turns out she suffered a concussion.

"I knew it was a concussion, but I didn't realize the repercussions of it," she said. "So I kept diving for the next three days of camp."

By the time she left, Hanson had a massive headache.

That, coupled with her history of headaches, led to post-concussion syndrome.

"I had a bunch of scary symptoms — stuttering, trouble sleeping, wasn't eating for a while," she said.

It required Hanson to spend second block, about a 75-minute window of the school day, in the nurse's office in a dark room to block light.

She attended speech, occupational and physical therapy.

The headaches subsided, but there were mental setbacks to overcome.

"It was hard for doctors to decipher after a while if it was my injury or mental health," Hanson said.

About two weeks before the season started in August, Hanson was cleared to resume diving.

She began with basic jumps.

"My first time back off in Iowa City, I got a headache," she said. "It turned out my hair came back and hit my head. It scared me to death."

Hanson visited her sports physician and later a neurologist.

"My neurologist determined it was more the fear of getting hurt again because my brain was telling me to stop since it was a traumatic experience last time," Hanson said.

She has gradually increased her workload and encountered no troubles. Hanson finished second to Hughbanks at last week's state-qualifying meet in Davenport. 

"I'm just really cherishing every moment because you never know when something could happen and it could be your last time diving," Hanson said.

Hughbanks and the rest of Hanson's teammates have been there to lend encouragement.

"Makayla has been amazing," Hanson said. "We're both so competitive, but we love each other so much. It is fun to go to practice, and we don't think twice about points or who dives better. We enjoy being in each other's company."

Hughbanks is associated with the Elite Tumbling Academy in Moline. She has gone to Florida for national competitions and been to Junior Olympics. Her coach wants her to try out for the world competition in Saudi Arabia.

"It is really competitive and hard, requires a lot of discipline," she said.

Diving has become her priority this fall. She'll jump back into tumbling routines once the state meet concludes.

Hughbanks was 12th in her inaugural state competition. She is positioned to earn a spot on the podium this weekend.

"This year, I'll know what I'm going into," she said. "We're just looking to go out there and giving it our best shot."

For Hanson, the result is almost secondary. She is just thrilled to be on the board again after an upsetting past year. 

"It has been just as much fun, if not more, because being away from it for so long just reassured how much I loved the sport," she said.

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Sports Editor

Sports editor, with my emphasis on covering the Mississippi Athletic Conference and Iowa area high schools. I've been in sports journalism for 19 years, the last seven at the Q-C Times.