When Alexandre Despatie steps out on the diving board – whether it’s with partner Reuben Ross in today’s synchro springboard competition or the solo springboard event Aug. 6 – he won’t be alone.
The three-time Olympic medal winner from Laval, Que., will have a personal cheering section, anxious for Despatie to win another Olympic medal and show its possible to come back from a scary injury to perform the daring aerial gymnastics the sport demands.
Watching closely will be the only man to win back-to-back gold medals on both the three-metre springboard and the 10-metre platform, Greg Louganis. The American diving legend is probably best remembered for his remarkable performance at the 1998 Seoul Olympics, winning gold after striking the springboard with his head in the preliminary rounds. Louganis bled profusely from a cut and had to be sewn up before he resumed diving.
“I hit my head on the springboard trying to execute a reverse 2 ½ pike,” the 52-year-old Louganis said in a telephone interview from London where he’s acting as a mentor to the U.S. diving team.
“I was conscious the entire time. I really didn’t have time to figure out what I did wrong. A lot of people said ‘How’d you get over it?’ – I didn’t get over it. I didn’t have time to get over it. It’s a process. What I had to do was put that aside like it never happened, and continue as if it never happened. I had 22 minutes to prepare for my next dive.”
Despatie suffered a 10-cm gash to his forehead on a springboard in Madrid while doing an inward 3 ½ somersault during a training session about six weeks ago - a dive the Canadian had executed thousands of times.
But how did the Canadian get over any fears? When he got healed and resumed practice, he nailed the dive, then sent out footage on YouTube to show the world he was back and not hiding from the dive that he’d messed up.
That kind of confidence comes with the territory of spectacular - sometimes risky - Olympic events, Louganis says.
“In diving, degree of difficulty is rewarded,” he said. “You do more acrobatic tricks, push the boundaries. That’s what sport is. It’s about pushing what we thought the human body was capable of. So that’s part of the evolution of sport…
“As far as diving, to this day it’s still a relatively safe sport. You’re only had two fatalities where an athlete his hit his head on a platform or something. Often times, it’s not so much the physical injury as the mental – the fear factor and getting over that is oftentimes more challenging.”
A concussion is an ever-present risk, he says. He wouldn’t have backed away from continuing in the 1988 Olympics if he’d known then what he knows of concussion injuries today.
“It’s my job, it’s what I was trained to do… Those types of things – as far as medical and all that – it happens anyways… You’re in the moment.
“I only had 22 minutes to get back on the board and execute my next dive. So, I didn’t have time for all this examination and self-examination. You’re either going to go forward or you’re not.”
One thing Despatie will have against him that Louganis didn't have to face is the rise of the Chinese male divers, the U.S. ace said. His 1984 and 1988 gold-medal wins at the Games came two decades before China became the dominant diving country.
“The state of diving globally is that the entire world is chasing China… It is a Communist country, where they hand select their Olympic hopefuls from a very early age, and they have a training system for sport that can’t really be matched in capitalist society," Louganis said.
"So much of their execution is about muscle memory and repetition. They do it over and over and have dedicated sports schools. In other (societies) you don’t have that luxury where all you have to do is dive or do your sport 24 hours a day.”