A small boy, seven or so years old, walks up to the edge of the diving board, toes dangling over. He stares into the abyss of the pool, contemplating his jump. It’s only been about four seconds since he came up to bat, but the crowd is getting antsy. You can tell he’s nervous; I swear I can hear his little heart pounding. Someone starts clapping in encouragement, and soon enough, all of Barton Springs Pool is booming with applause. The boy finally jumps, creating a small splash. As his head bobs out of the water, the crowd is still cheering. He looks across the pool to the three men scoring his jump—tens across the board. He beams.
“This is why we do this, boys,” says Adam Semlali, shuffling his scorecards ahead of the next jump.
It’s a Sunday at Barton Springs, Austin’s natural springwater community pool just outside downtown. The weather is chillier than usual—a cool 98 degrees. The Barton Boys, as they’re known on TikTok, are about to set up camp, armed with blue folding chairs and a shoebox containing their uniforms: different colored sunglasses, their signature white visors, and laminated scorecards. They shuffle into line with the other poolgoers, some local and some, I can tell by their confusion with the ticketing lines, who’ve traveled from afar. We’re all here to enjoy the 68-degree water, but the three guys, who have known each other since middle school, are clocking in.
The Barton Boys are four 25-year-olds: Semlali, Andrew Foster, Brandon Daniels, and Joey Pydyn. (Pydyn wasn’t able to make it on the day I visited, so I got the “celebrity chair”—one that has been filled by friends of the boys in the past.) The boys’ gambit was Semlali’s idea at first: the friends would set up to the left of the lifeguard stand, directly across from the diving board and under the shade of Flo the infected pecan tree, and rate the jumps from the diving board. They attribute the idea to wanting to keep Austin weird, bringing that “old Austin feel,” Foster says, from when they were growing up and living in the same neighborhood in Northwest Austin. More importantly, it’s a nice way for the friends, who were separated in college, to spend a fun Sunday afternoon with—as they repeatedly refer to one another—“the boys.” The childhood besties went viral on TikTok earlier this summer after an onlooker shared a video of them ranking a jump. “First, this is great. Second, what an amazing way to make [people] laugh without harming anyone,” one comment read.
The boys and I know what you’re thinking: What gives them the right? Everyone is here to cool off and relax; no one asked to be judged in a public setting. The group understands the sentiment, noting that the rankings are all in good fun. The scores very rarely go below six, which Foster says is mostly an incentive to “do better.” Plus, Semlali tells me, “kids get high scores, for sure.”
Foster notices that the diving line is starting to grow longer. It’s showtime. After setting up their chairs, the three young men stand in a circle, making sure to lock eyes with one another, and shake hands. “Boys, let’s be fair and honest,” Semlali says, before counting them down to sit in unison.
The first kid jumps (falls, more like) off the board. “Good splash,” Daniels says. They hold up their scorecards, counting off to reveal their numbers at the same time: 8, 8, 8. The only one among them with a swimmer’s background is Daniels. He used to swim competitively in high school, and he keeps up with the sport to this day. He’s serious about his dive scores, rarely giving above an eight, which Semlali jokes makes him “the Simon Cowell” of the crew. Most people are enjoying watching the cards go up, including a little one sitting a few steps away. “Oh look, they’re grading!” she giggles. It’s a warm and fuzzy scene as parents stop by the hill to compliment the boys, thank them for the entertainment, and maybe even do some flirting. “Don’t get distracted, Brandon, you have a job to do,” Semlali jokes. (One woman sitting near me doesn’t seem amused. “Such an easily entertained species,” she says.)
The boys recognize the regulars—some of whom point and acknowledge the professionals in the audience from the diving line—including one repeat diver known as the Blond Guy. According to the boys, his dives are typically clean, sharp, and have almost no splash. He’s waiting in line for his second jump of the evening, prepping for a no doubt stunning performance. “Oh no, Blond Guy is stretching,” someone observed. He walks to the edge of the board, sails through the air with three flips, and dives into the pool with no more than a plink! Moments like these require a standing ovation, and the boys comply, with 10s in hand.
From the moment I proposed the idea for this story, I’ve known I would need to jump. I was a lifeguard for four years in high school, and for some odd reason, the diving board has always taunted me. The board at Barton Springs is daunting. It’s springy—maybe too springy. All evening long, nervous and excited divers alike walk to the end of the board, bounce just once, and take instant flight. Their knees buckle, and whatever jumps they had in mind fly out the window. I am determined not to let that happen to me.
I swim across with some newfound friends, Lulu, Harper, and Anita, my stomach turning as I picture myself with buckled knees or, worse, a belly flop. As we dance our way across the slippery, moss-covered rocks leading to the deck, the girls talk about the scores they’ve received in the past and what really constitutes a ten. I share what I’ve learned: Daniels is partial to dives, Semlali loves a flip, and Foster is just happy to be there. I take the last spot in line, selfishly wanting to see how the gals’ jumps go. After I hear three splashes, I know it’s my turn. I walk off the board with no frills.
Before I know it, I’m coming up for air. I immediately look across the way to the men in visors staring intently at me: 7, 7, 6. Brutal.