In August 2019, Sarah Kerbrat stepped onto a diving board.
It had once been normal for her — it had been her stage, her place to shine — but as she prepared for her return, the incoming junior knew it was not the same as she had left it.
“It was a little hard getting off the board because I was off it for so long and I wasn’t used to the way it moved,” Kerbrat said.
Kerbrat returned after 22 months away from the diving board, recovering from a 10-millimeter atrial septal defect diagnosis — what she called “a hole in my heart” — after suffering migraines that kept her sidelined at the end of her freshman season with the Wildcats.
But while Kerbrat knew she was not jumping as high as she was used to, not getting off the board like she was used to, relief washed over her when she hit the water again.
“I was finally able to return to something I loved doing and missed so much,” Kerbrat said. “It made me realize I shouldn’t take it for granted and go for everything I want now.”
Kerbrat wants a chance at a state title, something she had been working toward since returning to the board in August. But the Novi senior already has one thing checked off her list of accomplishments: earning a scholarship to dive at the University of Indianapolis starting next season.
Over the past calendar year, Kerbrat has built herself up, setting goals and reaching them due to pure resilience and determination to continue what she had started when she first started to dive at age 9.
A different battle
Sarah Kerbrat liked to be in the air. She grew up competing in gymnastics and competitive cheer until she was removed after three concussions.
Her mother, Jennifer, moved Sarah to the pool, hoping she would continue what her older sister Katie had done since she was 5. To Sarah’s mother, it was the safest competitive sport possible.
But as Sarah swam, she could not help but notice the divers practicing near her.
“I thought it was cool with all the flips they were doing,” Sarah Kerbrat said. “I was always more interested in that than being in swimming.”
Sarah later joined the Novi High School diving team as a freshman, catching the attention of head coach Don Mason, who said it’s rare to have divers come into his program with any level of experience.
Kerbrat made an impression right away, qualifying for regionals in her first year with the Wildcats, bringing her methodical approach to diving — not learning a new dive until the previous one was mastered — to the roster.
But migraines, something Kerbrat suffered from since she was a child, grinded that freshman-year momentum to a halt.
Preparing for her regional meet, Kerbrat knew something was not right.
“All of a sudden, I couldn’t see,” Kerbrat said. “After that, I don’t really remember what happened. I just remember not being able to go to the meet and waking up in the hospital and being really upset because I had worked so hard for something and to have it all be taken away right there was very tough.”
After the headaches returned intermittently over the course of the next few months, Kerbrat saw a neurologist that March, who suggested a heart check.
The check proved to be more serious than Jennifer Kerbrat expected.
“They didn’t understand why or how she was walking,” Jennifer Kerbrat said.
Sarah Kerbrat was diagnosed with the atrial septal defect and was referred to a doctor at Children’s Hospital of Michigan in Detroit, where she was quickly prepped for surgery.
“When she got wheeled away from us, they didn’t know what they were going to do with her,” Jennifer Kerbrat said. “It was the worst two hours of my life.”
While initial recovery time was expected to be three-to-six months, Sarah Kerbrat’s recovery took a bit longer after health issues arose from the nickel plating used to pin the defect.
Instead of returning to life as normal, Sarah was forced to do home-bound schooling for nine weeks, not being able to see her friends from her club team, while missing both her sophomore high school and club diving seasons.
Mason said he talked to Sarah’s mother from time-to-time about the diver’s status, hoping for her return prior to the start of her junior year.
But while the expectations would be different when Sarah Kerbrat returned to the diving board, Mason knew his diver was fighting a different battle.
“There was something very persistent about her in her character that has allowed her to deal with some of these hardships, and she has had to learn from scratch how to do these things,” Mason said.
Return to form
Jennifer Kerbrat knows what kind of toll diving takes on her daughter’s body. She knows what could go wrong: from bruising to concussions to a damaged ACL or meniscus.
When Sarah returned to practice, Jennifer saw how weak she was. Over the course of Sarah’s recovery, her mother knew she would have to put forth effort to make it back to the level she was at prior to her surgery.
But then Sarah Kerbrat started to compete.
During her junior season, the Novi diver consistently placed in the top half of competitions, surpassing her own expectation for what she was capable of doing and coming extremely close to making the state meet in 2019.
Mason said the first third of the season was Kerbrat getting her feet wet. And when the strength returned and the dives improved, confidence ensued for the then-junior, with Mason describing Sarah as a different person.
“Just going through the normal season, she picked up a lot of strength,” Mason said. “Her coordination came back real quick — I don’t know if she ever lost it — but as she gained her confidence and she felt good on the diving boards, her confidence helped her to dive better.”
During the course of the coronavirus pandemic, Sarah Kerbrat became even stronger, working on an outside diving board while building up strength with consistent training throughout the summer.
Heading into her senior year at Novi, Kerbrat said she felt 100% back to where she was before her heart surgery.
With that ability, Sarah Kerbrat soon shifted her focus to finding a home for the next four years.
The senior said she had researched the University of Indianapolis for years, following head coach Dave McKown on social media after a teammate at Legacy had joined the team.
After connecting with the team in September, Kerbrat and her family soon made her way to campus, where she felt its impact right away.
“The second I walked onto the campus before meeting anyone, I knew that was where I wanted to go,” Kerbrat said. “When I walked on it, I felt an instant connection. I didn’t want to go to a huge school with a giant campus. I wanted to go to a smaller school where you almost know everyone and people will recognize you just walking or at the library or something.
“When we met the team, it just got even better because I just had an instant connection with everybody.”
Sarah Kerbrat, now knowing where she will go to college, has shifted her focus on the state meet. She believes she has a good shot, since she really has nothing to lose, knowing what she has gone through in her four years of high school.
“It just showed me that I really started to take things for granted and that if I want something now, I’m just going to go for it because I don’t know if it can be taken away from me again like it was,” Kerbrat said.
To Jennifer Kerbrat, Sarah is best described as resilient, determined, gritty. Her daughter did not give up and worked her way back to earn a college scholarship, no matter how this season ends for her at Novi.
To Jennifer, her daughter has a story to tell.
“These kids at this age think they are invincible, and Sarah learned that she is not,” Jennifer Kerbrat said. “Sarah learned that she could die. That was the biggest thing: my child, at 14, learned mortality and she came back from that.”