Next generation of Olympic hopefuls take the plunge in city’s pool of talent

Leeds Diver Alicia Blagg, and diving coach Adam Smallwood, below.
Leeds Diver Alicia Blagg, and diving coach Adam Smallwood, below.
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It was once a much- overlooked sport, but interest in diving has grown and, as Jonathan Brown discovers, much of the top talent was honed in Leeds.

FACING out across an expanse of concrete, tiles and a seemingly tiny puddle of water, high divers face an unnerving 30mph plunge.

Much of it tumbling and twisting, from a board 10 metres above the water with one of two outcomes likely. Get it right and your vertical entry into the water is an impressive spectacle; get it wrong and you’re in danger of getting seriously hurt.

But the buzz and excitement of high-octane aquatics, following the success of TV show Splash!, the emergence of poster boy Tom Daley and Team GB’s London 2012 success, have brought the sport to the masses.

Adam Smallwood was among the pro divers aiming for the top when he started training in Leeds aged 17 – attracted by the adrenaline-fuelled sport.

But after injuring his wrist during a painful 10 metre dive, Adam, who lives in Bramley, Leeds, continued practising on what turned out to be an undiagnosed broken scaphoid bone which put paid to his promising career.

Now the 23-year-old City of Leeds Diving Club coach is helping the next generation of Olympians hone their skills at the John Charles Centre for Sport, in Beeston, where the Dutch and Chinese Olympic swimming teams trained in the lead up to last year’s Games.

“It takes a lot to stand on a 10m diving board, throw yourself off and spin. It’s got that scare factor to it and obviously kids like looking good and showing off to their friends,” he says, watching on as four hopefuls leap from the world class facility’s springboards.

The rapid growth in the sport’s popularity has led to hundreds of young people taking it up through Leeds’s expansive lessons programme following an increasingly impressive record of producing top talent.

Few people in Leeds probably realise that their city is home to the country’s most successful diving club with Olympians and up and coming stars continually coming through the ranks, or that the City of Leeds Diving Club produced nearly half of the Team GB divers who took to the boards at last year’s Games.

“Not many people know this facility is here and that we are the most successful diving club in the country, especially considering the publicity that Tom Daley has brought to the sport.

“I think this centre should be more recognised for the kind of things it’s been doing,” says Adam.

He points out that promising young divers are even moving their families to the area to take part in the British Diving training programme at John Charles’s aquatics centre. One young diver and her family has even uprooted from Crystal Palace, in London, purely to focus on the sport here.

The move is understandable when you consider that a team of four British Diving coaches, including the highly respected Adrian Hinchliffe and former world champion diver Edwin Jongejans, are in charge of nurturing the region’s talent pool.

But success at the elite level doesn’t come without sacrifice and it is dedication and determination that has seen the likes of local star Alicia Blagg take on the world’s best on the Olympic stage.

The 17-year-old is one of several professional divers that train around 26 hours a week in Leeds through strength work, trampolining and diving itself.

The Notre Dame Catholic Sixth Form College pupil juggles a busy education with a fledgling aquatics career that has seen her compete at London 2012 and secure two gold medals at the European Junior Championships in Poland last summer.

“My life is just college and diving, it’s quite a packed life, I don’t really have time to do anything else. I like to keep myself busy, it’s kind of full on,” she says.

“I would like to make Rio, that’s the goal, I just want to carry on 
for as long as possible. I really enjoy it.”

Arguably seen as a niche sport prior to the recent surge in popularity, for many of the top athletes coming out of Leeds, they didn’t find diving – it found them.

Alicia was cherry-picked from school through British Diving’s Talent Identification (TID) programme, which tests basic physical and mental skills of youngsters, when she was aged just seven.

Hannah Starling, who is the most successful British diver to come out of Leeds, was another youngster plucked from primary school obscurity by coach Edwin Jongejans.

Within eight years of being spotted she was an Olympian.

The 18-year-old, who recently went into full-time training after taking a gap year from the University of Leeds, is keen to make the most of her opportunity.

“It’s certainly growing and Leeds is the place it’s growing from. I just do it because I enjoy it, for me if I enjoy it then success will hopefully come with it.”

James Denny, 20, fell into the sport through a chance summer camp eight years ago and is another high diving prospect now with his sights on Rio.

The rising stock of diving in the public’s perception is something the City of Leeds club is keen to capitalise on, with the kind of summer camps, classes and open events that found James seen as a key way to unlock a new generation of talent.

“Because we’ve got so many top event athletes and so many Olympians, a lot of the attention is focussed on the top end of the scheme,” says coach Adam Smallwood.

“I’m about getting more young people into our lower end schemes to keep up the kind of success we have been having for the past five or six years.”

Not only is Leeds harbouring some of the UK’s best young divers but the world’s first male Jamaican diving star, too.

Yona Knight-Wisdom, based in Chapeltown, Leeds, is driven by the prospect of representing Jamaica alongside the likes of Usain Bolt at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.

An unconventional diver, the 6ft 1in tall 18-year-old towers above many of his diminutive opponents.

Having had a three-way choice of who to represent on the international stage – Jamaica from his father’s side, Barbados from his mother’s or Great Britain – Yona went with Jamaica but still trains alongside British hopefuls at the John Charles Centre.

Plucked from school through British Diving’s Talent Identification programme aged nine, Yona earned a place on the diving training scheme in 2004.

Earlier this year, in only his fifth international competition, he took part in the World Championships in Barcelona.

He came 23rd in the one metre springboard, four places behind Harrogate’s Jack Laugher, and 34th in the three metre springboard event.

“It was a little bit surreal for me because I never really expected myself to be able to compete at a World Championships,” he says.

“I’m quite tall compared to all these lot but surprisingly I didn’t feel that much pressure.”

Without the financial backing of British Diving, the Leeds Metropolitan University sports science student initially faced a fight to find funding but managed to find it in an unlikely place.

An email to Levi Roots, the Dragon’s Den star-turned-entrepreneur behind Reggae Reggae sauce, resulted in a meeting with the potential backer who bought into his plan.

“I sent an email to the comments page on his website saying what I’m doing and aiming to do and I got a reply. I met him in one of his London cafes.

“He thought what I was doing was really good being the only Jamaican diver.”

While Betsy Sullivan represented Jamaica at the 1966 Commonwealth Games in Kingston aged 10 before going on to the 1972 Olympics, Yona is the spearhead for the sport in Jamaica today and, like many others training in Leeds, is hoping to make a big splash in the years ahead.

The City of Leeds Diving Club hosts diving lessons for children and adults at the John Charles Centre and at Aireborough Leisure Centre, in Guiseley. For further information call 0113 2475222 or visit www.leeds.gov.uk/sports.

Leeds - a diving success story

The John Charles Centre for Sport’s aquatics centre opened in 2007, replacing the old Leeds International Pool in the city centre.

The £16.5m venue includes an array of diving boards, an Olympic-sized swimming pool which can be split into different sizes by submersible flooring.

Coun Lucinda Yeadon, Leeds City Council’s lead member for leisure, said: “We can genuinely say we have a world class aquatics facility here in Leeds, a fact which has been proved by the number of incredibly talented young athletes who train there and who regularly represent their country at international level.”

It has seating for 650 people overlooking the pool and another 150 people at the diving area.