Friday 24 May 2019

Teenage strops and belly flops cut no ice in world of top level diving

Andrea Chiarabini and Giovanni Tocci of Italy in action. Photo: Reuters
Andrea Chiarabini and Giovanni Tocci of Italy in action. Photo: Reuters

Tommy Conlon

The way to make a splash in competitive diving is not to make a splash at all. We know this because, following on from the hockey last weekend, I've become an overnight expert in another niche sport.

The inspiration for this latest crash course in a discipline I knew nothing about was a 16-year-old girl I'd never heard of; but there she was, live on the telly last Wednesday, representing Ireland at the European Championships in Edinburgh.

Her name is Tanya Watson. They told us it was her first ever senior international competition; that she was the youngest competitor there; that she'd come seventh in the European junior championships a month before; that she'd finished 12th in the World juniors less than a fortnight before; and that she had qualified out of the preliminary rounds earlier that morning.

So there she was, on her senior international debut, competing with 11 other athletes for a major medal. Watson grew up in Southampton and trains at her local diving academy. She is qualified to represent Ireland through her Derry grandmother and made the decision to do so last October.

All 12 contenders would have five dives each in the final. Theirs was the 10-metre competition. Ten metres is over 32 feet; they hit the water at speeds touching 35 miles per hour; they climb to the platform via a spiral staircase that itself looks dauntingly high.

The three components of the dive are take-off, flight and entry. Some of them take off by means of a handstand, manoeuvring themselves until they are upside down on the edge of the platform. The flight involves all sorts of twists and somersaults in "tuck" and "pike" positions. The entry should be perfectly symmetrical and vertical; it should generate minimal water turbulence.

Each of the five dives would have to contain different gymnastic elements. Some of the dives would be more complicated than others, gaining higher marks from the judges if executed properly.

Our tutors for the afternoon were the BBC commentators Katherine Downes and Leon Taylor, an Olympic medallist in 2004. It was Taylor who told us that Watson's entry on her second dive had been "a little bit cast", meaning, we think, that she was slightly tilted as she torpedoed into the water. Nevertheless she was in sixth place after two rounds. After three, she was in fifth. "Neat and tidy," was his verdict after her third effort, an inward two and a half somersaults in the pike position, apparently. "One to watch for the future," added Downes. "Tanya Watson of Ireland, remember that name."

The judges, like the commentators, were unforgiving on any technical discrepancies. Another 16-year-old, Sofiia Lyskun from Ukraine, was the early leader. But she was penalised for the entry on her second dive. "Not straightening out," explained Taylor, "you can see her backside sticking out and water being thrown up in every direction." An Italian diver lost points for "helicopter feet . . . toes coming apart, ankles apart, shouldn't really see that."

Then poor Sofiia was automatically deducted two marks by every judge before making her third dive at all. In attempting to assume the handstand position, she lost balance and aborted the manoeuvre. She got it right the second time but it was too late. Them's the rules but they seemed a little bit harsh, given that it's hard enough for most people to do a handstand in the middle of a meadow, never mind on the edge of a 30-foot cliff.

Happily she nailed her fifth attempt, leaving just a tiny dent in the pool as she entered it clean as a spear. "Oh what a dive!" declared Taylor, "that's an absolute pearler of a finish, look at that, not enough splash to fill a teacup."

Elena Wassen, a young German, was having a bad day. When she materialised on the platform for her fourth dive, Taylor reckoned she had a bit of a puss on her. "Do you see her? Do you see that? She looks like she doesn't want to be there now." Sure enough, it did not go well. "You could almost tell by the expression on her face at the back of the diving board. Maybe showing her immaturity, only 17 years old, having a little bit of a teenage strop maybe."

One wouldn't be surprised, if Elena's folks had heard Taylor's comments, that they had a bit of a strop with him too. These young women, after all, are engaged in a frightfully demanding and physically punishing sport. One recent medical report from America found that competitive 10m divers will average 50 to 100 practice dives per day. The impact on shoulders from repeatedly hitting the water at such velocity is painful and potentially damaging. And if a dive goes wrong, one imagines that it can be alarmingly sore on the body in general.

Watson's fourth dive sent her back down the leaderboard. Her fifth, a forward three and a half somersault in tuck position, is her favourite routine apparently, her comfort dive. And she landed it beautifully to finish the competition in seventh. Wassen finished in eighth, Lyskun fourth. Gold, silver and bronze went to athletes aged 25, 30 and 28 respectively. On the day, experience counted heavily in a sport which, like gymnastics, seems to favour athletes closer in age to childhood than adulthood.

Anyway, it was all an education, not least in discovering that Ireland had a young talent who could be world class in a tough and still obscure discipline. We learned, too, that this daughter of the diaspora is a dinger, a topper, a gutsy performer. Watson will be going to the world youth Olympic games in Brazil next October. If she maintains her upward trajectory, we might all learn to cut out the belly flops in the local swimming pool. It's the least we can do.

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