It’s rare for one city to provide almost half of the team for one sport at the Olympics. Michael Hickling reports on the success of the Leeds way.
A good jump, flexibility, co-ordination: these are commonplace physical assets which define childhood. Most children have them but not many go on to take up the minority sport of diving.
In Leeds, however, things are different. The city has turned itself into a world renowned diving centre by uncovering potential at an early age, a system put in place several years ago and now bearing rich fruit.
The method of the Leeds Diving Training Scheme is to go out into junior schools to put youngsters through their paces and measure their jump height, flexibility and co-ordination.
It harnesses the enthusiasm of those selected and then, as the years progress, the scheme carefully shepherds divers with elite prospects in the direction of trophy winning.
Within the sport the Leeds way has already been acknowledged as a remarkable success. What brought this triumph to the notice of the general public was the recent selection of the 12-strong Great Britain diving team for the Olympics.
An astonishing five of them are the product of the Leeds set-up and two of them are entirely home-grown. The oldest is Rebecca Gallantree, a 27 year-old Sport and Exercise Science graduate from Leeds University. She was actually part of one of the talent-spotting teams which picked out a couple of potential winners among the schoolchildren and got them into diving.
Two have since become Rebecca’s colleagues for London 2012. One is Wakefield-born Alicia Blagg, 15, who has been Rebecca’s diving partner since she was 12 and became the youngest double national champion in diving history. Alicia teams up with Rebecca in the three metre synchro event at the Olmpics.
Almost the same age is Hannah Starling, 16, the other schoolgirl who took up the sport as a result of this prompting and selection. The fourth female member of the team is Sarah Barrow, 23, also from Leeds.
The best-known graduate of the Leeds way is Jack Laugher, a 17 year-old studying maths, chemistry, physics and PE at AS level at Ripon Grammar school.
Jack, from Littlethorpe, Ripon, competes in the three metre and one metre springboard and was the first British diver to hold both the Junior World and European Championship titles.
Tom Daley has the highest diver profile and is on the Olympics posters. But Jack is being tipped as the next face of the sport having been nominated for last year’s BBC Young Sports Personality of the Year.
A diver’s career usually peaks around the ages of 23-24, so there will be plenty of time for Jack, Alicia and Hannah after the London Olympics.
They have just completed a training camp in Majorca although their work is usually done at the aquatics centre at the John Charles Centre for Sport in South Leeds. The degree of commitment required to reach an Olympic pitch of performance can be fully appreciated only by the divers themselves and their coaches. Rebecca Gallantree reckons that for the past six years she has spent 30 hours a week, 50 weeks of the year, getting ready for her big moment.
But there’s one other key player in the making of a top diver. The parent has to share the ambition of their pre-teen child if they are going to shoulder the burden of shuttling him or her to a pool week in, week out and sit on the sidelines through hours of gruelling training. They get used to it, make friends with other parents and come to see the honing of supreme talent in a matter-of-fact sort of way.
It takes someone unconnected with the sport to come in and admire with an outsiders’ eye this poolside scene of guts, talent and family togetherness in action.
Tim Smith is an award-winning photographer from Bradford. He had no knowledge of diving until he was commissioned 18 months ago by the John Charles centre to do the pictures for a brochure. They hoped his images would persuade foreign diving teams to book the Leeds facilities for their pre-Olympic training.
The pictures caught the eye of Jane Sellars who runs the Mercer Gallery in Harrogate who decided to put on a themed exhibition called Dive! over the Olympics’ period and asked Tim to contribute.
“My brief was to provide a set of pictures around movement and the interaction between light and water and the human body,” says Tim. “Normally I take editorial-style single images that tell a story. Because this commission was about the movement of the diver, that wasn’t appropriate. I’m not a sports photographer and wouldn’t dream of claiming that I am. So I looked at it from a different way and came up with the idea of a composite image
“I didn’t have any interest in diving as a sport until I did the photos for the brochure. But it’s really quite an extraordinary thing, people in a gymnastic act that is over in the blink of an eye where the training involves this incredibly repetitive cycle.
“It fascinated me that when you look through the viewfinder there’s some point in the dive when you don’t know where is up and where is down. I don’t know how this sense of spatial awareness works for the diver.”
For the exhibition Tim returned with his camera for more hours at the poolsides and at various unlikely points around them, such as the top of the ten metre board.
“I’ve not got much of a head for heights,” he admits. “Up there I was slightly unnerved and thought, ‘Oh My God, it’s a long way down’.
“But when you are passed by a procession of 10 to 12 year-olds who proceed to launch themselves into space, just standing there is nothing.
“These young people are up at an ungodly hour and the best part of their teenage years is spent at the pool.
“I talked to the coaches but I just let the kids get on with the job. It’s interesting to see how they go into a zone of concentration – almost a meditative state – especially when they are on the edge of the 10 metre board with only about 30 per cent of their feet actually touching it.
“I was hugely impressed by their total focus, the complete dedication required to spend four to six hours a day and weekends in intense physical and mental training.
“It reminded me of seeing ballet, an artistic endeavour where you also have to be an extraordinarily talented athlete.
“Diving is the flipside of that, a sport that is also an act of artistry - ballet in the air.”
Was Tim tempted to have a go? “The highest board I went off was about 40 years ago and that was feet first.”
Dive! Art and Water: Mercer Gallery, Harrogate, to September 2.