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

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - COMMENT - TOMMY CON­LON THECOUCH@IN­DE­PEN­DENT.IE

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.

Them’s the rules but they seemed a lit­tle bit harsh

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