Smile Politely

Midwest Scuba Center: C-U’s local dive

A group of scuba divers are all underwater in an indoor pool wearing full black diving gear. You can see black stripes on the bottom of the pool and bubbles floating up from their masks.
Alex Gentner

A recent string of sinus surgeries stranded Alex Gentner on dry land for two months — the longest stretch of time he’s gone between scuba dives in a decade. Since 2007, Gentner has suited up and slipped beneath the waves about 7,000 times. But as the owner of Champaign-Urbana’s Midwest Scuba Center (MSC), swimming with the fishes more than 400 times per year is never enough. “It definitely changes your perspective,” he shared of the seafaring sport. “When you start diving, you start seeing the world in a different way. You’re seeing all of the life and ecology that you wouldn’t see terrestrially.”

Alex Gentner diving off his yellow boat at his dive shop in Florida, Maritime Expeditions.He has medium length sandy brown curls, a beard and mustache and is giving a "hang ten" sign to the camera. He's wearing blue and white athletic shorts and scuba gear against a blue sky.
Alex Gentner

The MSC has empowered midwesterners to breaststroke beyond the terrestrial since the 60s, when, in lieu of an ocean, bay, or beach, the business buddied up with the next best thing. “In one form or another, we’ve been teaching scuba at the University of Illinois since 1968,” Gentner said of the partnership, which celebrated its golden anniversary in 2018. The MSC-U of I union began in 1968, when the former went by a different name, Gentner said. On-campus classes convened wherever there were pools. If the walls of Bromley Hall, the Chancellor Hotel (now the Hilton Garden Inn and Homewood Suites on Neil Street and Kirby Avenue), and “the old [Champaign County] YMCA on Church Street,” could talk, they’d sing to us of scuba. Two major changes rocked the MSC in 1971: The center was christened with its current name and began using the pool in campus’s new Intramural Physical Education building. Renovations in 2008 turned IMPE into the still-going-strong Activities and Recreation Center, better known as the ARC. MSC and the ARC remained bonded through acronyms and water sports, and, as is often true of the oldest friendships — are still pals today.

A group of scuba divers are all underwater in an indoor pool wearing full black diving gear. You can see black stripes on the bottom of the pool and bubbles floating up from their masks.
Alex Gentner

As the dive shop matured into what it would one day become, Alex Gentner did the same. “I’ve always been a water person,” said the Champaign-Urbana native. “Going out west as a kid with my dad in his semi truck, I learned to surf a little bit…and I snorkeled a lot and body surfed. I always wanted to do scuba but I never had the financial opportunity.” In 2007, just days after his 19th birthday, Gentner fulfilled his childhood dream on a month-long snorkeling trip to Maui. He agreed to a spontaneous scuba lesson and “fell in love with it right then and there,” he said. He completed more than two dozen dives in Maui. He knew he was hooked when it made financial sense to buy, rather than rent, his equipment. 

After returning to the contiguous U.S. with a suitcase full of gauges and masks, Gentner began his collegiate journey at Parkland College, where he studied kinesiology and community health. After a few years, he transferred to Culver Stockton College in Canton, Missouri, where he pivoted to a business degree program and a position on the basketball team. But another sport had long commanded his attention, and he returned to it post-grad. Heart set on one day opening his own dive shop in the Caribbean, Gentner moved back to C-U in 2014 to intern with Brad Knop, the then-owner of Midwest Scuba Center. By 2016, Gentner owned the shop. “It took seven years to figure out, ‘Hey, I can actually do something I love and make a living with it,’ and that’s what I’ve done full-time for the last nine-going-on-ten years,” Gentner said. “And I found out later, when I became an instructor, that my aunt had actually been a scuba diver since the 1970s… and swam in the Junior Olympics!”

A group of six people stand in full scuba gear for the final stage of open water certification in Mermet Springs in Southern Illinois, Gentner is top-left.
Alex Gentner

Now, Gentner supervises the Midwest Scuba Center’s suite of offerings for divers of all skill levels. For folks new to the undersea neighborhood, MSC offers a three-part Open Water Certification program in one of the world’s two premier scuba diving agencies: the Professional Association of Diving Instructors, or PADI; and Scuba Diving International, or SDI. Participants start with a fully online course, get their fins wet in a pool class at the ARC, and with four open-water dives over two days in nearby Haigh Quarry (the self-proclaimed “Caribbean of the Midwest”) or Mermet Springs.  Completing all three training modules means certification “anywhere in the world and for the rest of your life,” Gentner said. Divers ready to go beyond the basics can try an advanced course or explore assorted specialty topics such as photography, equipment maintenance, and rescue. A short refresher course is always an option for certified divers looking to dust off their gauges and jump back in. If you’re hesitant to commit, don’t fret: MSC offers a sample-sized “try it before you buy it” pool dive to get acclimated and — literally — test the waters.

Contrary to popular belief, midwesterners have many reasons to get their scuba on. Many of Gentner’s clients are bound for beach vacations, he said. Others are university scientists, marine biologists, and researchers chasing coral. Fifteen clients went on to work for NASA, because “every astronaut has to be a diver first,” said Gentner, who has witnessed many people find their confidence in the pool. 

“Some people [take diving lessons] to conquer their fear,” he said. “Some people… know they’re going to love it, and there’s no fear. All of them, you can see they breathe a little harder when they first get in the pool. After a little bit, they start calming down, and once they stop thinking about the breathing side of it, you can see that transformation, and it happens so quickly. By the end, they’re getting out on the ladder, out of the pool, carrying their equipment, and smiling, like, ‘Oh, that was awesome!’”

A group of scuba divers on a vacation trip in Raja Ampat Indonesia. They are standing on a large balcony over looking a beautiful tropical location made up of forested islands and crystal blue waters. The sky is cloudy but there is a streak of sunset in the background.
Alex Gentner

Students seeking adventure can join one of MSC’s vacation dive trips,  or even use one to close out their three-part certification, said Gentner, whose favorite trip was an expedition to Raja Ampat, Indonesia last March. With Iceland and Palau on his mounting list of dream dives, Gentner’s own aquatic aspirations are coming to fruition. While the COVID-19 pandemic prevented him from opening up a shop in the Caribbean, Gentner successfully opened a dive shop in Mexico Beach, Florida in July 2023. “My goal is to ultimately have a chain of shops. I want to build this up for a few years, and then open up another one, and then, same thing: another one, and another one,” he said. Along with opening up stores, Gentner hopes to continue opening up his clients’ worldviews through diving. “When you start diving, you start seeing the world in a different way,” he said, crediting his compassion for the environment to his underwater escapades.

“I try to buy from people who have good, sustainable practices [more] now than I would have and if I wasn’t a diver I don’t think I would have thought about it as much. It’s like if you are a contractor that builds houses, you’re going to buy a house differently than someone who doesn’t know anything about houses,” he said. “[Diving] will change the way you see the world. You’ll see some bad stuff, but you’ll also see some really good stuff, too.”

Midwest Scuba Center
1717 Philo Rd, Ste 13
Hours by appointment only

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