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Canada's Alexandre Despatie performs a dive during the men's 3m springboard final at the London 2012 Olympic Games at the Aquatics Centre August 7, 2012. (MICHAEL DALDER/REUTERS)
Canada's Alexandre Despatie performs a dive during the men's 3m springboard final at the London 2012 Olympic Games at the Aquatics Centre August 7, 2012. (MICHAEL DALDER/REUTERS)

Alex Despatie finishes 11th in three-metre springboard Add to ...

A collective sharp intake of breath from 17,000 fans, an ugly splash, a final bow scuttled.

It’s a crime against history that the last images of Canadian diver Alexandre Despatie in an Olympic pool will be of him landing awkwardly in a frothy explosion of water, then grimacing and punching the surface in anger as he swims away.

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So let’s not dwell on a three-metre springboard final in which he would finish 11th, let’s talk instead about a young man of uncommon character and toughness.

An athlete whose talent and accomplishments have cemented a legacy.

“He showed Canadian diving what is possible, he changed everyone’s attitude,” said Mitch Geller, the technical director of Diving Canada.

The real victory for the 27-year-old from Laval, Que., who has two Olympic resumes and three world championships on his lengthy resume, is that he was standing on the board at all.

By now everyone has heard about the sickening training accident that has left him with an angry pink scar tracing his hairline, but the psychic and emotional scars of hitting his head on the diving board during a practice session in Madrid seven weeks ago are less well documented.

“When he got back from Spain, it was clear to us there was no way he could come to the Games,” said Despatie’s father Pierre, who was in the stands for the final with his wife Christiane, daughter Anouk, and a throng of friends and relatives. “But here he is.”

Together they waited, under the Olympic rings, for Despatie to emerge from the Aquatic Centre; his arrival was greeted with hearty applause, and hugs, and tears.

If there was a sad tinge to the celebration, there needn’t have been.

Despatie’s 2012 Olympic story is only about a missed forward 2.5-somersault with two twists and only tangentially about diving at all.

Rather, it’s a tale of personal triumph over fear and doubt, of stepping forward and competing with all you have - even in the knowledge that it can’t possibly enough.

It’s a story about putting aside a disfiguring, frightening injury and carrying on in the face of monstrous odds, when it’s easier to quit and no one will blame you in the slightest for doing it.

It’s about thinking seriously about bailing - and thinking about it often - and pressing on.

“Look, the Olympic Games have a special effect on us, I wanted to be here, and I don’t regret a second of it, regardless of all the obstacles, I would do it again,” Despatie said. “It was hard to not let go, I always had it in the back of my mind that the other guys are training, and you saw the results today.”

Despatie arrived in London with the knowledge that his curtailed training regimen - derailed first by a serious 2011 knee injury, then by the Madrid incident - had left him at a severe disadvantage.

But beginning in the synchro competition, through two rounds of qualifying, through five dives in the final, Despatie proved he could compete if not quite at the top level, at the highest level he could muster.

He carried on, it’s what champions do.

These are Despatie’s last Olympics, even if he’s tempted to stick around for another season (“the World Championships in Barcelona next year could be fun,” he said).

“I do diving, but that’s not who I am,” said Despatie, who would like to launch a career in acting.

There was frustration, of course, on Despatie’s part at missing his chance to exit in the style to which he has accustomed his fans.

But those disappointments will be temporary, the example he set will be lasting.

As Geller put it: “What he was able to achieve in getting here . . . really, he’s still our hero.”

Follow on Twitter: @MrSeanGordon