DIVING, it seems, has a lot going for it. Alexei Evangulov, Great Britain’s national performance director, describes it as “an artistic combination of danger and beauty”.
Chris Mears, one of the sport’s leading exponents in this country, loves the adrenaline rush, which he compares to skiing and mountain-biking.
In a montage put together for the big screen at the Royal Commonwealth Pool in Edinburgh, which hosted the second day of the FINA/Midea Diving World Series yesterday, some of the sport’s fans are rather more prosaic. As part of an impromptu vox pop, one punter is asked what he loves about diving. “The women,” is his reply.
Judging by the crowd’s reaction, men are an even bigger draw. The whoops and hollers went up a decibel when Mears and Jack Laugher, his 18-year-old sidekick, took to the 3-metre springboard, but the man whose name is on everyone’s lips, the man who really makes diving sexy, is the man who wasn’t in competitive action.
Tom Daley was not on the agenda yesterday, but when the morning session was over, he did manage to squeeze in a quick practice, prompting a flurry of flash bulbs and a frustrated look back from the departing crowd. Today, the young Englishman will do it for real in the 10m platform, his first competitive appearance since he won a bronze medal at last year’s Olympic Games.
Mears, 20, who reached last night’s final, bears an uncanny resemblance to Daley. Were his Great Britain team-mate not such a show-stopping solo act, they and Laugher would make quite a boyband. “Yeah, it’s good,” said Mears. “Jack and I have quite a lot of Twitter followers from the Olympics. Tom as well. He has glamorised diving.”
Today, Daley will single-handedly sell out the Commie’s 600 seats, fewer than half of which were occupied yesterday morning. Outside the arena, which will host next year’s Commonwealth Games, he has been signing autographs for queues of teenage girls. If his team-mates are at all jealous, they have a funny way of showing it. They and their sport have benefited from his fame.
Hannah Starling, a 17-year-old from Leeds who recorded a personal best yesterday, admits that Daley, himself only 18, has been an inspiration. “He makes it seem achievable when you know someone else has done it at such a young age. It adds fuel to your fire.”
A smattering of Edinburgh schoolchildren will line up alongside Daley, pictured right, in the ceremonies before and after today’s competition. Some 2,050 of them have been introduced to the sport in the past couple of months, taking membership of Edinburgh Diving Club to more than 500.
Jenny Leeming, the club’s coach who is also the event’s legacy manager, says that it is vital the sport takes responsibility for its future. “It’s not something you get taught at school, is it? It’s mostly hockey and football there, so it’s been hard to get attention, but with the Olympics, Tom Daley and Splash, people are talking about it more and more.”
Splash, in case you didn’t know, is the prime-time reality TV show in which celebrities dive, with a little bit of help from Daley. In Edinburgh yesterday, there was no Eddie the Eagle, and no Jo Brand, but the four judges, perched alongside the new diving pool, built as part of a £37 million refit, proved to be able deputies.
The process is fascinating. After the fountains and fireworks that accompany the divers’ pre-session parade, they make their way, one by one, up the spiral staircase to meet their fate. After a brief stretch and a quick adjustment of the Speedos, they slap themselves with a towel, a curious ritual that also involves wafting it under the crotch. A moment later, they are zoned out, lost in a world of their own that takes them up off the end of the board and into the water courtesy of various pikes and tucks.
“There’s a lot of adrenaline,” says Mears, “and I love that type of sport. I love mountain biking and skiiing. I like a bit of risk, especially when you’re under so much pressure. Nail this, and you go through. Land on your face, and you don’t. It either makes you or breaks you.”
Daley, together with Tonia Couch, will fly the flag for Great Britain today, although there is doubt as to how he will perform. He has shuffled the order of his dives and gone back to basics in search of a winning formula. “Tom is not at his peak, but he’s looking good,” says Evangulov. “We’ll see.”