DIVING

JONATHON GATEHOUSE August 16 2004

DIVING

JONATHON GATEHOUSE August 16 2004

DIVING

JONATHON GATEHOUSE

THE QUEST FOR precision in Athens is advancing amid some serious Montreal chaos. Rock music echoes off tiled walls. Shrieking little girls are hurtling themselves from platforms high enough to turn most adult legs to jelly. And flying bodies of all sizes are hitting the pool in such rapid succession that the surface froths like cappuccino.

The stars of Canada’s Olympic diving team patiently wait their turn, sharing the springboards and towers with future hopefuls at Centre Claude Robillard. The din doesn’t stop when they launch themselves into the air, spinning and twisting in elegantly controlled descents, but all eyes are watching. Whenever one of them nails a difficult dive, knifing into the water with the barest of splashes, there’s a collective whoop and applause. Spectators on the pool deck hold up 10 fingers—a perfect score.

The judges are likely to be harder to impress at the Olympic Aquatics Centre in Athens, but expectations are high for a Canadian team that boasts two reigning 10 m world champions—Alexandre Despatie and Émilie Heymans—and the second-ranked women’s springboard diver, Blythe Hartley. “We have the capability of medalling in all seven events that we have divers entered in,” says head coach Mitch Geller. “We don’t know what colour the medals will be, but we’re certainly hoping to outdo the two we took home from Sydney.”

Most of the pressure will be on Despatie, who hasn’t missed a spot on the podium since the 2000 Games, where he finished fourth in the 10 m. At just 19, the Laval native already owns 35 national titles (24 senior and nine junior), four Commonwealth Games medals and enough Grand Prix golds to sink his compact frame straight to the bottom of the pool. In Greece, he’s set to compete in three events—the individual 10-m platform and 3-m springboard, and the men’s synchro 10 m with teammate Philipe Comtois—and is a serious threat in every one.

Sprawled out on a picnic table after practice, his dark hair still wet from the pool, Despatie tries to bat away notions of Olympic glory. “Diving is a sport of the day,” he says. “If you’re having a good one, you’re lucky. If you’re sick or something, you’re screwed.”

At meets, he avoids looking at the scoreboard, preferring to concentrate on his own upcoming dives. He likes it even better in countries where he can’t understand the PA announcer and can remain blissfully ignorant until the medals are won. “Once you get to a certain level, the mental difference is all there is,” he says. “It’s who’s going to be stronger in the head.”

Staying focused in Athens will be his biggest challenge. As a skinny 15-year-old in Sydney, he was almost a mascot, the cuddly Little Prince everybody was rooting for. This time he’s a favourite—currently ranked world No. 1 in the 3 m, third in the 10 m. He’s already a star in Greece—dubbed “Alexandre the Great” by the local press, and adored by fans because of his grandmother’s Hellenic roots. There have been injuries this season, a sore shoulder that kept him out of a May competition. Not that he’s taking the proffered crutch. “Pain is always there,” says Despatie. “I don’t remember the last time I dove and something didn’t hurt. But that’s normal. We push ourselves to the edge.” Émilie Heymans already knows what it takes to get to the Olympic podium. In 2000, she captured silver in the 10-m synchro event paired with the now-retired Anne Montminy. In Athens, matched with Hartley, she’ll be aiming for the top step. Heymans is also competing on the individual springboard and 10-m platform, in which she’s ranked No. 1 in the world.

It’s been an up-and-down year following her world championship. She contracted an infection in January, then fell ill at a Grand Prix event in China in April, just before the Olympic trials. But Heymans, who’s known for her powerful style and love of difficult dives, can be dominant on the tower. At the Canadian Winter Nationals in 2003, she racked up a score of 624.09—the highest mark ever recorded by a woman in the

10 m, and 80 points better than the gold medal-winning performance in Sydney. “I love to compete. It’s such a great feeling when you put in a good performance,” says Heymans, who speaks softly but radiates intensity. “It gives you a type of energy that spills over into the rest of your life.”

Like most of her teammates, the 22-yearold has spent more than half her life working toward the goal of Olympic gold. Six hours a day at the pool, little time for anything outside of diving, just to secure a spot on the team, all the while knowing that one tiny error can be enough to scuttle your hopes. “In the end you deal with the work, the boredom, the pain, because it’s something you love to do,” she says. “It’s my passion.”

Hartley has also sacrificed for her chance in Athens. Last fall, the North Vancouver ! native put her studies at the University of Southern California on hold and moved ; to Montreal to train at Claude Robillard. She’s away from family and friends, has spent most of the season on the road, and is working in her second language. In Sydney, where she finished 10th on the springboard, it was enough just to have made the team. This time, expectations—her own and those of others—are much higher. Hartley jokes about how viewers at home will be able to identify her: she’ll be the one who looks miserable. “I’m pretty much a nervous wreck the whole competition,” she says with a laugh. “I don’t look happy, but that’s what works for me.”

Geller isn’t sure all this pressure is a bad thing. The Canadian team has tried to insulate its athletes in the past, with mixed results. Now with the new emphasis on the podium, Geller thinks the glare of the spotlight might help his stars keep things in focus, and fulfill their potential. After all, despite protests to the contrary, the dream of watching the red maple leaf raised to the rafters is what has fuelled the hard work. “The first time I went to the Olympics, I was going there to see what it was like, live the experience, have a lot of fun,” Despatie eventually admits. “This time I can’t say I’m not expecting anything.” He’s far from alone. Iffl

jonathon.gatehouse@macleans.rogers.com