IT’S A lonely occupation being Tonga’s sole international diver, particularly when you are the only competitor to fail to qualify for the women’s 1m springboard final, a fate that befell Maria Zarka on Friday.
At least the 20-year-old had some company yesterday. In comparison to Friday, when she was the only diver from the 13 entrants to be eliminated, it was a rather less cruel system yesterday. Two were permed from the 14 who competed in the preliminaries for the women’s 3m springboard final.
Canada’s Emma Friesen joined Zarka in failing to make the cut – they were first and second reserves respectively at last night’s final. For Zarka at least, making it as far as the final was not necessarily the object of the exercise. At her first international tournament, she was simply here to enjoy herself. She is a member of the band of athletes competing in these Games who are soaking up the experience of being involved in such a high-profile event, and learning how to cope with competing in such a high-quality field.
The taking part really is all that matters. Like many divers, Zarka started off as a gymnast, before making the switch to swimming because she had grown much taller, and then, more recently, moving on to diving. “Obviously I am Tonga’s only diver and they want representation anywhere they can get it – they welcome anybody with open arms,” she explained.
“A year ago, my parents mentioned representing Tonga, but I just thought it was a silly thought,” she said. Although she grew up in Hawaii, she has chosen to compete for Tonga, the country where her mother, Kamelia, is from. Indeed, Kamelia, too, represented Tonga at international level in both netball and handball. She is here in Edinburgh as well and was looking on yesterday as her daughter scored 184.40 points, 152.50 behind the leader, Canada’s Jennifer Abel. While clearly at a slightly different level to her peers, Zarka’s efforts still attracted plenty of admiration and applause from the galleries.
“A few officials from the Oceania Olympic committee have approached me here in Edinburgh and they want to get me involved in more meets like this,” Zarka revealed. She has her sights set on Rio de Janeiro in 2016. “The Olympics is nice in that it includes all countries, it is not just the elite eight, it is the top two from each country. Which is why I can hope to slide in there.”
Zarka is currently studying film at Kenyon College in the States, and so she is glad the diving stage of Glasgow 2014 has been outsourced to Edinburgh, at a time which coincides with the festival. “I have done some of the touristy things, but it is such a beautiful city, I just want to keep wandering around,” she said.
“I came in here with the thought of just having as much fun as possible, and whatever happens happens. The next meet I will have a few more goals to meet in terms of my diving.”
In contrast to how it might have been for Scottish peers such as Grace Reid, Zarka’s introduction to diving sounds completely idyllic. Rather than have to endure the sting of chlorine and cold, early mornings in municipal swimming pools, she displayed her aptitude on the north shore in Oahu, Hawaii. “She would jump off the rocks there and my husband said: maybe we should try diving?” explained Kamelia, her mother, yesterday.
Maria was then 11 years old. Within a few years, she was state champion for Hawaii, before going to Kenyon College, a division three sports college – she is the national diving champion at this level in the States.
“My husband wrote to Tonga authorities, gave then a short history of what she is doing and what she has done, and they were very excited – no one else is diving in Tonga,” added Kamelia.
While the row rumbles on about whether Usain Bolt is fully embracing the Games or not, Maria Zarka is someone who truly appreciates being here. After participating in the opening ceremony, she wrote on her Facebook page that she had no idea what a big deal the Commonwealth Games are. “We do not hear about it in the States,” explained her mother. “She was so taken with it. I mean, the Queen was there!”
But then, she too is related to royalty, of the Tongan variety. “My mother is derived from one of the princes of Tonga,” said Kamelia. She is also related to Lord and Lady Vaea – Lord Vaea is the Tongan minister for sport, his sister is the queen of Tonga – who were at the Royal Commonwealth pool yesterday to cheer Maria on, later posing for family photographs in the Games Family Lounge at the pool in what was a slightly surreal scene.
Maria will take part in tonight’s closing ceremony, one of 15 Tongan athletes, and then flies home to the States tomorrow. Where next? The South Pacific Games, where she will again represent Tonga. She really doesn’t need anyone’s sympathy.