Diver Alex Despatie hopes that his difficult spring will turn into a prosperous summer.
But for now, the 26-year-old diver from Laval, Que., is dealing with the near washout of his comeback from injuries that kept him from the 2011 world aquatic championships in Shanghai.
The injuries are a thing of the past, but Despatie has had to start from zero to rebuild his skills, his instincts and his strength again. He hasn’t enjoyed a straight line to success.
There are flashes of brilliance, though, in the steamy pools of the world. The old Despatie magic is still there, given the tools and the time and the right venue.
He found it at the World Cup in February, at the final Olympic qualifying event for divers, that also served as a test event for the Olympics in London. Despatie pulled off an astonishing rally, against all odds, to win a bronze medal with only one previous international competition under his belt since October of 2010, when he won three Commonwealth Games gold medals.
At his first international event since then, a Grand Prix event in Germany, Despatie finished only seventh in the men’s three-metre synchro event. He called it a disaster. The Olympic qualifying event was only eight days later. Canada hadn’t qualified spots for the events in which he specialized.
“He was solid,” said Mitch Geller, chief technical officer of Diving Canada. “He wasn’t top of the pack, but he was consistent and he surprisingly stepped up his game, and ended up squeaking into third, which was way above our expectations.”
Geller called Despatie’s work on the final day, a “bit of a superhuman effort,” well above what his level should have been, given his long absence from the game.
It was no coincidence that Despatie, a two-time Olympic silver medalist in the three-metre individual event, was diving in the Olympic venue. He’s the type of athlete whose chest swells when the chips are down, the crowd is buzzing and the need to achieve is acute. He’s a competitor, after all.
Anything he’s done since then hasn’t been quite the same.
After the London event, Despatie was prepared to return home to continue training, but on the final day of the London event, international diving officials issued him a special invitation to compete in the World Cup series, which is normally reserved for the top eight competitors of the world.
The final ranking for that series came from the world championships in Shanghai, which Despatie had missed, but FINA set aside its criteria, inspired by his efforts in London.
Despatie wanted to go, but wavered. The events hadn’t been in his training plans. The invitation came as a surprise. Finally, he agreed to do two of the four events, and fly to Dubai and Beijing.
Perhaps he wasn’t prepared for the travel difficulties. He had a passport that was about to expire. He had to update it. Dubai has a 21-day wait for Visas to be issued for Canadians, but they waived it to allow him to come.
But Dubai, for all of its expansive facilities – the diving venue was a $300-million structure in the middle of the desert – didn’t offer atmosphere. Crowds were sparse. Diving wasn’t a big draw in the sandy deserts of Dubai. Despatie played to a massive echoing chamber.
Next was Beijing, but to get there, Despatie had to fly back to Germany to head over to Beijing. “It was horrendous travel,” Geller said. “The odds were against him.”
Add to that the fact that the World Cup series is a made-for-TV event, that gives divers very little practice time and they must squeeze all diving rounds into two days.
Despatie finished ninth in Dubai and fifth in Beijing. Despatie was “deflated,” and “very upset,” Geller said.
Despatie told Geller that he wanted to continue diving at the level he showed in London, but said: “I felt like I didn’t have any resources. I never felt so resourceless.”
He meant that he would stand on the board and have no recall of all the things that just happen when you need them to.
Despatie realized that he just needed to return to training. He needs more time in the sop. He needs more repetition. His rehabilitation hadn’t focused on strength, which he needs to pull off the formidable 4 ½ front dive that will be necessary to battle the stars at the Olympics.
He’ll skip the Olympic trials in Montreal, because he’s already qualified and there’s not another Canadian man who can match him right now. And he’ll train instead. He’s highly motivated.
Despatie is determined that his trip to the London Olympics won’t be as a tourist. He aims to win and complete his resume that is lacking only one thing: an Olympic gold medal. It will be his fourth Olympics. His challenge will be imposing.
But with Despatie, anything is possible. “You never know what he is capable of,” Geller said. “He can surprise you and he has, over and over.”