Divers Jack Laugher and Chris Mears are putting in the hours in Leeds in a bid to bring more gold medals home.
The sporting legacy of Jack Laugher and Chris Mears will always be defined by the six dives that secured a historic Olympic gold medal in Rio. The synchro superstars became household names, a sobbing North Yorkshire-born Laugher unable to hold back the tears after winning sport’s ultimate prize with his best friend and soulmate.
Yet they’re adamant their golden success was only made possible by the world-class facilities at the John Charles Centre for Sport in Leeds which opened 10 years ago this week.
The culmination of Leeds Council and Sport England’s inspired decision to honour John Charles, football’s original gentle giant, it is now a centre of excellence where dreams do come true.
Both are back in the water finessing their dives ahead of next year’s competitions following a below-par year by their high standards – Mears, 24, considered quitting after the Olympics.
Under the watchful eye of Dutch-born coach Edwin Jongejans, Mears is concentrating on his entries into the water – the key is to make minimal splash – while Laugher, 22, is working on his technique in the air. Mears, also a keen musician, jokes that the only time he perfected his entries was on the day that mattered most of all – August 10, 2016. It’s a date now etched on his arm, for posterity and inspiration.
On opposite sides of the pool, they rip into the water, look to Jongejans for feedback and then turn to watch an instant replay on a poolside screen. This is hi-tech training. They’re practising with a highly talented group of future stars at this medal factory who want to emulate Britain’s first Olympic diving champions.
“Now we’ve had a bit of success, it’s expected of us. Good luck to the younger ones,” jokes Mears who was given a five per cent chance of surviving a ruptured spleen in 2009.
Already best friends with Laugher after a competition in China in 2010 more memorable for their late-night exploits on the PlayStation than the diving, Reading-born Mears moved to Leeds after the London Olympics in 2012 to focus on the synchronised three-metre springboard.
“Most pairs probably don’t train together,” says Mears. “For us, it was calculated. It wasn’t throw yourself in the water and see what sticks. We practised together, we worked on really little things about timing, about different speeds, about different dives. This place has everything we need to do that – and more.”
The ever-bubbly Laugher concurs as he sets out how the John Charles Centre for Sport made a critical difference – their great American rivals, for example, trained separately.
“It’s a high performance centre up there with the very best,” he tells The Yorkshire Post. “Leading up to the Olympics, we had Aidy [Hinchliffe] and Edwin – two of what I consider to be the top five coaches in the world.
“We’ve got a tremendous amount of equipment in the dry gym, and another weights room. All of our support team are so close to us – physio, doctors support, massage, psychologists, individual strength and conditioning coaches, nutritionists. And the EIS [English Institute of Sport] is just down the road in Sheffield.”
Laugher was blown away when he first arrived at the centre a decade ago as a hyper-active child. “I absolutely loved it,” he said. “Do you know what was the most mesmerising bit? It had stairs to get out of the pool. I thought that was amazing. It was like a holiday pool, pretty cool. For me, from Harrogate to here is the difference between low-level regional competitions and winning the Olympic Games. This is a place where professionals train, it’s a place to better yourself as an athlete and become the best version of what you can be. Everyone is here is striving for that and me and Chris have done exactly that.
“There’s the Commonwealth Games next year. We’re looking continually forward to better ourselves. It’s a big roller-coaster, diving, but we’re trying to stay at the top.”
Mears nods his head in approval. “I was really excited to come and work in the facility, and with all the people,” he said. “Back in 2012, I was training in Southampton and everyone had left or retired. It was me and my coach, and no one to push me. Here, there’s so many people doing such amazing stuff that it inspires and motivates you to do more.”
It helps that Laugher and Mears describe their “amazing” training group as their “best friends”. Only a fortunate few, they say, “turn up for work each day with all your best friends”.
Yet the special camaraderie also meant they had the inner belief to stand on the springboard in Rio to pull off the dive of their lives – a forward four-and-a-half somersault with tuck.
“He cried in my arms,” says Mears as he recalls the moment. “There’s not really a word that warrants a description about how good it is.”
Today Laugher does hold back the tears. “Absolute euphoria. A dream come true since you were a kid. And a dream I thought was possible but never thought it would actually happen,” he says.
“In running and swimming, you know you are the fastest athlete or fastest swimmer. In diving, so much can go so wrong so quickly. That was the same for Chinese. They were first all year and one little mistake and they’re dropping back.”
Like all sports stars, staying at the top is harder than the ascent in the first place. Today their warm-up begins with a series of stretching exercises that would please most gymnasts.
The physicality of their dry-land work is just as important as their dives. The banter masks the pain as they develop the flexibility so they can power off the springboard and somersault through the air before entering the water as straight as a pencil.
Fun is the key, says Laugher. “People in the past have done it a certain way. You’ve got to eat your brown bread and salad for lunch. I’ve always wanted to do it my way. I still take advice from other people, but I never wanted to be moulded and sculpted into something I wasn’t.”
It’s why he’s back in harness with Mears who admits: “I wanted to retire after Rio. Absolutely I wanted to retire. I’ve got a lot going on in my life, as well as diving, but there are important competitions which we want to do really well at.
“I’m not getting any younger, I’m 24, and, yeah, that’s quite old for a springboard diver. I struggled a lot last year and I’m back with a very positive message in my head. One year at a time”
Given they need to be at one on the diving board, the message from Laugher is the same, though he has youth – and individual ambitions – on his side.
“One year at a time, I am younger and am still really enjoying the sport and do it for a long time,” he says.
“Tokyo [2020 Olympics] is not in my mind at all. Every week, every month at a time. It’s all about getting the individual sessions right to move forward.
“Tokyo is the end goal but poor preparation will lead to poor performance so it’s about preparing correctly and making each training session count.”
Mears nails his final practice dive as Laugher and Jongejans watch on – his entry into the water barely makes a ripple.
“Where’s that been?” asks their coach. “Do you know what? I don’t know,” replies Mears. The boys are back in business.