LONDON – The fear is never far away. It looms in front of each diver bringing with it a terrible promise. And no matter how much they try to tuck it away, pretending it isn’t there, the dread still churns deep inside their minds.
The board, they say.
They must never hit it.
Yet the smallest misjudgment – a bad step, a wrong leap – might hurtle them blindly toward certain calamity. So they never speak of their fear, vowing not to discuss the sound a skull makes when it smacks against the board and the pool below turns crimson with blood.
"There’s really no benefit to dwelling on the negative," Canadian diver Reuben Ross said Wednesday afternoon.
Six weeks ago, Alexandre Despatie, his partner in the synchronized 3-meter springboard, did the thing that terrifies all divers. He hit his head on the board. It happened in Madrid, and when the accident occurred, there was all the requisite blood and broken skin. Despatie had a gigantic gash that stretched around the top of his skull like a half-hearted attempt at a jack-o-lantern. Paramedics rushed him to the hospital where doctors told him he had a concussion.
Despatie recovered quickly, returning more than two weeks before the Olympics, where he and Ross finished sixth on Wednesday – a remarkable feat given what happened to Despatie and how little time he had to work together after his injury.
On Wednesday, Despatie felt the fear no matter how much he tried to squelch it. This came on the final dive he and Ross performed: an inward 3½ somersault, head tucked, eyes looking everywhere but at the board. It was the very dive on which he got injured in Madrid, and as he walked across the board, that day came racing back.
Then he said to himself the thing everyone had said to him in the days after he came back: "Go for it. Don’t do it halfway."
And when he did, it wasn’t perfect. It wasn’t enough to propel the duo to a medal. But it was solid enough. And more important, he was able to put the board out of his mind at just the moment his feet left its edge.
"I try not to think about it," he said. "Especially when I’m diving, it’s something I don’t want to be reminded of."
Because if he is, he will never be able to dive with the same fearlessness, thinking of nothing but the twirling in the air, the tucking of his body and the splash in the water. If the injury creeps too long in his thoughts, he is done as a diver. He doesn’t want that.
The scar from that day in Madrid makes a red ring around the top of his forehead, peeking out from his hairline. He jokes and says he "redecorated my head." The scar has its own feel which is a strange numb sensation that comes because the nerves are damaged. The doctors have told him they don’t know if he will ever get that feeling back.
They say it’s 50-50 the nerves regenerate. Either way, there will always be a scar, and the scar will always be a reminder that the board is never far away.
"You know the board is a little bit scary," said Ross who said he has had several near-misses of his own throughout his career. "If you want to execute the dive well you have to be able to take risks."
On Wednesday, Ross and Despatie did that. They jumped with confidence and seemed able to make all the dives they tried. They just didn’t have timing. This is because of not just Despatie’s head injury but also a knee injury that came earlier in the year. It meant they barely practiced before the Olymipcs. They had about 10 practices before the Games which is not enough time to rebuild cohesion between the two men in a sport that demands nothing but cohesion.
Too many tiny things went wrong. Things that might have been corrected had there been more time.
"Little things in diving can make a difference," Ross said.
But on the afternoon they had been waiting for all these years, it was something big that loomed over Ross and Despatie.
"I’ll be very honest, I didn’t know what to expect," Despatie said. "There are thoughts I try to keep out of my head that are very hard to keep out of my head."
And yet for five dives in an Olympic final the fear was gone. He twisted in the air. He twirled. His head came close to the board in that way that can make people gasp. Every time his head missed.
The fear was not there.