How I Became the Best
I was a handful as a child. I was hyperactive and my parents had no idea what to do with me. I couldn’t sleep, I wouldn’t rest and I needed constant attention. The solution they came up with was to try tire me out through different activities. I began swimming when I was still in nappies and mother and baby gymnastics before the age of two. I suppose athletics were a part of my life before I can recall my own memories, if that makes sense.
So by the time I was 8 years old I was doing about 10 different sports. Swimming and gymnastics were my main two. I was getting pretty good at those and was given the opportunity to try diving. Because I had already completed 7 years of gymnastics and loved the water through swimming, I began to accelerate through the ranks in diving quite quickly. I was at an advantage because I could already do a handstand, I knew where I was when I was doing a basic summersault maneuver and from quite early on I was doing very well.
By the time I was 14 I was best in the country and at 16 years old I was good enough to be on the men’s senior national team. Then, at 18 I made my first Olympic games, competing for team GB in Atlanta in 1996.
Preparing for the Olympics or any elite level of athletics is intense but diving really is one hell of a sport. In diving, the key attributable skills are speed, power, agility, flexibility and the utmost important is aerial awareness i.e. do you know where you are when you’re spinning around multiple times? So diving takes massive amounts of preparation work because to be fit enough to perform the agility movements that are required in the air, you need to do a lot of strength, flexibility and power based work. At my peak, I was training 7 hours per day, 6 days a week.
The interesting thing about diving is that to perform the dives, you need to be fit enough, strong enough, powerful enough in order to do them. So there’s always this fine combination. I guess the key to success in my sport is not just being able to perform the dives, its being able to do it when it counts. And it’s not like a long jump or javelin where you take your best effort, every single dive you take in a competition dive counts. So if you make a mess of one, you’re out of it. Especially at the highest level. So it’s that consistency that were looking for and it takes those long training hours.
Our 7 hour training day would be split into two parts. Three hours or so would be in a dry land setting—on trampolines or in the gym. We would do lots of body strengthening exercises—kind of gymnastics-esque— pushups, sit ups, hard core abdominals, hanging from bars with weights on our feet lifting our toes up multiple times. My BeachFit class here is actually really easy compared to the stuff that we used to do. Then, diving in the pool would be the remainder of the time—breaking down the dive into its component parts. The most important part of diving is the entry so, we would work on the entry all the time. This could be just a very basic dive. Because if you can get it right on the most basic thing, then the transition into something more complicated is already ingrained in the skill.
In order to be the best, I think that the mindset of an elite athlete is about is how much harder can I work? How much more can I achieve? And when you’re trying to be the best in the world, you actually sacrifice a lot. Time with your friends, time with your family, education. You also sacrifice your wellbeing. And that sounds funny because you’re involved in sport but actually sports people aren’t necessarily the healthiest people.
I used to train so hard and so long that I was constantly picking up illnesses. My immune system was battered and I was picking up injuries. When you push the limits, they push you back. And when the limits push you back, sometimes you crack. And for me, hitting the water at that kind of speed, 40 miles an hour and training so hard, the injuries you sustain can take you a long time to recover from so it’s that constant dance of pushing and being smart. And over the years I learned to be smarter—in my early days I pushed too hard and ended up with some injuries that plagued me for the duration of my career.
I retired just before the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing because my body had had enough of training 7 hours a day, 6 days a week. Hitting the water at 40 miles per hour had caused injuries in my lower back, shoulders and at the grand old age of 30 years old, I had pushed my body too far. So I retired after 22 years of competing in diving. Just before what would have been my fourth Olympic Games.
Part II – Yoga: Recovery: Mind and Body
Part III – Nutrition: What Works for Me