Each year on his birthday, RIT diving Coach Cliff Devries makes his way to the edge of the diving board and — surrounded by friends, family and divers — makes his yearly dive into the pool.

“Way back when — probably about 15 years ago when I started doing it [the birthday dive] — I guess it was just cause I felt that, ‘Okay, I can finally walk.’ It had been a few years before I was actually able to walk,” Devries recalled. “I was like, ‘Okay, I can get in the water and do a dive and somebody can fish me out.’ I just thought it’d be fun to try it.”

His friends and family love seeing Devries gift the dive to himself each year. His colleague and friend of over 30 years, Phil Baretela — RIT’s head swimming and diving coach — remarked that everyone was simply “in awe” the first time he got back on the board.

“I see it as that’s his reward to himself for everything that he’s been through,” Baretela said. “As famous as it’s gotten? He didn’t ask for that. He wouldn’t ask for that.”

Devries had no idea how popular the birthday dive would become, nor did he ask for a career as a diving coach, but all of the signs seemed to point him that way.

Diving Chose Devries

Devries started coaching at Rush Henrietta Senior High School after recovering from his surgery before heading over to Monroe Community College for three years. Then, in 1999, a diving coach position opened up at RIT. Devries took the position, however coaching wasn’t exactly the career he had in mind.

“I wanted to get out of diving. I wanted to get into a different career, either engineering or accounting,” Devries said.

Coaching helped Devries pay his way through school, where he earned a degree in accounting. He applied for a position with Arthur Andersen — one of the largest accounting firms at the time — but shortly after, the firm went under. Unfortunately, with no accounting experience and many seasoned accountants out of jobs, the market didn’t look promising for Devries.

He didn’t give up hope, though, and applied for a job with the CIA, but luck still wasn’t on his side as that job fell through too.

While continuing to job hunt, RIT’s diving coach position opened up once more. Shortly after when Devries was in the gym working out, Mike Cahill — a former head swimming and diving coach at RIT — approached him with an offer to come back as a diving coach. Devries declined but Cahill was persistent.

“Next day, [Cahill] came over and was like, ‘Hey Cliff, change your mind?’” Devries recalled. 

Devries eventually did, as in 2002 he accepted the position and once again became a diving coach. 

“I thought, ‘Well, it seems like the entire universe is telling me I have to coach,’” Devries said. 

“I thought, ‘Well, it seems like the entire universe is telling me I have to coach.'”

Current Coaching Endeavors

Along with coaching the RIT diving team, Devries is the director of Upstate NY Diving — a skill-based diving club for budding divers in the Rochester area. 

His wife of nine years, Stephanie Devries said that her husband knows exactly what he is doing when he coaches, especially with the young divers. His methods tend to include having them practice the same technique over and over again. Often, parents at Upstate NY Diving become frustrated that their kids aren’t moving on, and they look to go elsewhere.

“But they very quickly come back — repentant — because they realize that what he [Devries] is doing is right,” Stephanie said.

In coaching, Devries’ main goal is to help kids be successful divers. During practices with the RIT diving team, Devries not only provides detailed feedback to help his divers refine their skills, but also praises them where it’s deserved.

“We [Devries and the diving team] just want you to get better each time,” Devires said of his methods.

Jessa Kaups, a second year Mechanical Engineering major and member of the RIT diving team, notices her improvement during the long diving season — in part thanks to Devries’ dedication.

“I love him as a coach. He works very well with what I need as a diver and he takes a lot of time to work on the mental aspect of diving as well as the physical aspect,” she said. “That’s really important because diving is terrifying.”

Not only is he admired by his divers, but by Baretela as well.

“[Devries] is a driven perfectionist. You see it in his relationships with his athletes. There is still that genuine care for their success,” Baretela said. “Just constant support, constant teaching, constant motivation ... [he’s] completely dedicated to the sport of diving.”

“Just constant support, constant teaching, constant motivation ... [he’s] completely dedicated to the sport of diving.”

Coaching, for Devries, is pure enjoyment. Whether it be for Upstate NY Diving or the RIT team, he enjoys seeing his divers improve every step of the way.

“I get to work with kids who are six years old all the way up to 21, and be a part of the progress at every single level,” he said. “That’s exciting for me.”

This dedication in Devries can be seen not only through in his coaching, but also in his family life.

Family Life 

Devries cherishes his home life with his wife, Stephanie, who he met back in 2008 through an online dating website.

“I looked through his pictures and he was cute and had this huge smile in every picture. We emailed and clicked right away,” Stephanie said.

Devries and Stephanie talked for a while — graduating from emails, to phone calls, to in-person trips. Stephanie lived in Florida, and because Devries’ dad worked for JetBlue at the time, flying down didn’t pose a problem — unlike another aspect of the dating game.

“When to tell somebody, ‘Hey, I’m severely paralyzed,’ is a very tricky thing to negotiate,” Devries laughed. “I told her, ‘Listen. I’ve got a really, really bad limp and I can’t move my right arm.’ She was like, ‘That’s fine, that’s fine — totally understandable.’”

Stephanie said Devries sent her an article explaining his surgery and cancer. Devries told her of his “really bad limp” as soon as they began discussing the first visit, and reminded her time and time again, too. But both Devries and his wife said it’s hard to imagine how he walks without seeing it.

Stephanie waited — the anticipation building — after learning that Devries was officially on the ground in Orlando.

“I had been to the Orlando airport a thousand times. I knew the place like the back of my hand ... I’m waiting for the plane ... and all these people are coming out and I’m just like, ‘He told me he was [off] the plane, how could he not be here? He’s standing me up,’” Stephanie said. “Finally ... there he comes sauntering off.”

Devries said with a grin, “I get out there and she was like, ‘Man it took you a long time to get out here!’ And I said, ‘I told you, I can’t walk!’” 

From that moment on, they both knew that they were meant to be.

“Immediately, we clasped hands perfectly and that was it,” Stephanie reminisced. 

Now, Devries is a father to a sweet little 7-year-old, Grace. 

“The best way to describe Grace is that she’s a little ball of sunshine,” he said. “She is always dancing, always singing, always fluttering around — no matter where you are, if you’re around her, you’re happy.”

Grace can simply light up a room just with her presence, Devries said with a smile. His favorite part about being a dad is simply spending time with her — whether that be playing games like Monopoly or wrestling with her. Stephanie admires the way Cliff interacts with their daughter.

“Cliff will just drop whatever he is doing, it doesn’t matter what he’s doing. He’ll drop it and he’ll play with her and sing with her and dance with her and color with her ... or whatever else ... He’s a really sweet dad,” Stephanie said, smiling. “... I could write a book about all the great things he does.”

Authoring His Story

Devries is in the process of authoring a book about his life journey, from his cancer to where he is now. His friends and family have been telling him he should for a while now.

“There are a lot of people who wanted to hear more of the story than just a two minute clip of a dive,” Devries said.

Still searching for a common theme and title to tie the book together, Devries is unsure when it will ready for publication. However, he has high hopes for what will come of sharing his story.

“If I write a book, I could maybe give a little bit of that that I was trying to do when I started diving to people and say: Number one, there is always a sliver of hope. No matter how bad things are, things with me were that I was pretty much dead, but I was able to come back and of course meet Stephanie. Right now, my life is pretty fantastic.”