Injuries and personal setbacks won’t hold back these Canadian divers at the Summer Olympics. With hard work and a focus that borders on obsession, they’ve risen to the top of their sport.
AS SEEN IN OPTIMYZ MAGAZINE JULY/AUGUST EDITION
Thousands of the world’s best athletes are arriving in London for the Summer Olympic Games. Of these, very few will have a chance to make it past the qualifying events, much less win a medal. To make it to the podium, the athletes have to peak at just the right time—the Olympic finals.
Canadian divers Alexandre Despatie and Jennifer Abel are two who have a reasonable chance of beating the odds. Now 26, Despatie has been on the world stage since age 13. He has two Olympic silver medals under his belt, but has never been Olympic champion. After missing most of 2011 with a knee injury, his goal this year is to break China’s near monopoly on gold medals. Abel is a rising star. Now 20, she competed at the Beijing Olympics when she was only 16.
“I want to be ready to compete at the highest level, be a good teammate and enjoy the experience of the Games,” says Despatie. “Being there is so special it’s hard to describe the feeling.”
When they re-visited the Olympic pool in Beijing in March, it rekindled memories of the 2008 Games when Alex won silver and Jennifer locked in her reputation as an international athlete. Still, they didn’t see much besides the pool and the hotel. That’s life for elite athletes.
Before the London Games in July there will be more international competitions—needed to prepare mentally. But to be physically ready they need to put in intense training days, in the pool and in the gym. “I’m not ready for London yet,” Alex told OptiMYz. “I need time to do the repetitions.”
This is code for training: Working out with weights and stationary bike in the morning and diving in the afternoon, or diving both morning and afternoon. Besides diving, Abel also runs and studies ballet to help her to be graceful in the air. Dive practice also includes stretching and trampoline work. On some days they make as many as 150 practice dives. “We train hard not to lose focus,” says Abel. “The Olympic pool in Montreal is my first home.”
Divers perform the same dive over and over again under different conditions to prepare for any situation. “It’s like a golfer who hits hundreds of balls in practice to be ready for anything in competition,” says Despatie. “In any field, you gotta love what you do to put the work in to succeed.”
Then there’s the rush of competition. “In diving you are in the spotlight,” says Abel. “You have to love the adrenaline.”
The flip side is learning how to relax so the body and mind can recharge. “In this Olympic year I need to go quiet,” says Despatie. “I need time for simple stuff like going out for meals with friends. While I have a strict diet, you need balance. I treat myself to a Big Mac sometimes.”
“Even with my diving friends we don’t talk about it when we leave the pool,” says Abel. “It’s a rule. You have to turn it off. One of the keys to preparing for the Olympics is not to think about it too much.”
Kids at heart
When Alexandre Despatie was growing up his parents couldn’t keep him out of the backyard pool. “I fell in love with the water,” he remembers. “I made my grandmother score my dives. I always wanted a 10.”
He entered dive classes at age four and started competing at six. He made the national junior team at eight and was a finalist at nationals. “I came from an athletic family. I skied and played golf and football, but there was no question: Diving chose me.”
Indeed, the Laval-based Despatie was a prodigy. In 1998, at age 13, he won gold at the Commonwealth Games, including an unprecedented score of perfect 10s. He has taken more than 40 national titles, won five medals at World Cups, seven at Commonwealth Games, and five at Pan-American Games. At the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, he won a silver, Canada’s first medal by a diver in the Olympics. At the Beijing Olympics in 2008, he claimed another silver.
Abel also started diving at age four. “I saw my brother diving and wanted to be like him,” she says. “I loved it from the first dive.” She also tried synchronized swimming, karate and Tae Kwan Do, but gave them up to focus on diving.
In 2006, Abel took a bronze at the World Juniors. In 2008, still a junior at age 16, she won her first international medal as a senior and represented her country at the Olympics. “I got so much experience in Beijing,” she says. “I was more confident after that.”
In 2009, she won two national titles and two bronze medals on the international circuit. In 2010, paired with Emilie Heymans, she reached the podium on the Grand Prix, World Series, and World Cup; and won two gold and a silver at the Commonwealth Games. In 2011, she won 17 medals.
The art of seeing
Like any sophisticated skill, learning new dives is as much about rewiring the brain as it is raw athletic ability. Divers need to be wonderful observers. The trick is to make incremental progress over hundreds of dives. “I always watched the older divers to see how they performed, and tried to connect this to a feeling in my body,” says Despatie. “And I also watched to see how they dealt with everything—the stress of competition, the whole way of life.”
Did he ever feel his demanding sport was a sacrifice? “No, I love my life,” he says. “I chose to be a diver and strove to be the best. It took a lot of perseverance and time. I travelled the world as a competitor in pursuit of my dreams and learned from the school of life.”
Abel says she was always the youngest, both in the pool and travelling with the team. “I watch the other divers to learn from them, not only the dives but how people act behind the scenes.”
She doesn’t resent missing a lot of what young people consider a normal life. “I put in long hours as a teenager, but it was cool to travel the world at a young age.”
Good days and bad
Despatie has had his share of setbacks. He broke his foot a few months before the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing and still finished on the podium. After the 2011 winter nationals, where he took gold on the 3-metre and 3-metre synchro (with Reuben Ross), he developed knee problems and missed the rest of the season.
“My parents and my sister help me through tough times—and my close friends who know that when I leave the pool I don’t want to talk diving,” he says. “And the team is very close knit. We encourage each other on good days and bad days. That is priceless.” In particular, he singles out Arturo Miranda. His Cuban-born coach, long-time teammate and former dive partner is a long-time supporter.
“My parents believe in me more than I do,” says Abel. “They were confident I could make the Olympic team for Beijing. And Cesar Henderson, who’s been my coach since I was 14, knows me better than I do.” She also credits her synchro partner Emilie Heymans, who is 10 years older and a legend in Canadian diving.
As elite athletes, they both benefit from sponsorship. Both are sponsored by McDonald’s, Despatie since he was 13. He is also an ambassador for Ronald McDonald House Charities, helping families with sick children. “Besides funding they help with moral support when I am injured or have a poor performance,” he says. “This is a great example of a partnership. The corporate world should take notice and think about supporting more athletes.”
The road ahead: Know thyself
Despatie expects this will be his last Olympics, although he admits “it’s hard to let go of the idea of not going again, of witnessing history one more time.” But it will not be his last competition.
When he does retire, he plans to pursue an acting career. “Like sport, it’s a tough industry,” he says. “Diving is like acting in some ways. You take direction and rehearse, then perform in the moment. You need to concentrate and be in the zone in spite of distractions.”
For her part, Abel is a long way from retirement. When asked what she sees down the road the communications student speaks of a career in media and lots more travel. What is the most important thing she has learned as an elite athlete? “Sport teaches you to know yourself,” she says. “Life is never perfect but you have to deal with it.”
Meanwhile, London beckons. The best athletes in the world will converge in the modern version of the ancient Greek games. In the pool, Despatie and Abel will stand above the water, with that mix of calm focus and determination that all great athletes have. They have been preparing for years.
Now nothing else matters. There is just the diver, the board, the air and water below. Each dive takes only seconds, but time seems to stand still. The body twists and arcs, reaching beyond the possible and seeming to suspend gravity for that brief moment. That is the moment the diver lives for. The world is watching.
Photography by: Chamsi Dib