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I’m standing on a five-metre diving board – about the height of a two-storey building – preparing to throw myself off, headfirst. And I’m terrified. I take a determined step towards the end, lock my arms above my head and begin to tip forward.
I have always admired people who can dive, and secretly wished that I could do it. I watch them taking off from great heights, seemingly floating for a second, before arrowing smoothly into the water. How do they do that? When I get up there, the thought of leaping headfirst short-circuits my brain. Won’t my neck snap? So I’ve come to one of the world’s best diving centres, the Life Centre in Plymouth, the former training pool of diving superstar Tom Daley. Hopefully, with a little help, I can become one of those elegant, effortless diving types.
My instructor, Fito, a former champion cliff diver, starts by getting me to dive from the side of the pool, before moving me on to the one-metre board. Following his instructions, I find myself plopping easily into the water. After just three dives, he says I’m ready for the three-metre board. I look up. Really? Already?
He comes up on to the board with me and we stand at the edge. It feels higher up here than it looks from below.
“It’s exactly the same process,” he says. Hands above my head, thumbs locked, tip forward and then jump. Except it’s not the same at all. I start to bend forward, but just at the tipping point, before the point of no return, I stop. I stand up, take a breath.
But Fito doesn’t give me time to overthink it. We start again. “Arms locked, bend … one, two … go.” Following his calm instructions I tip forward – and I’m gone.
It’s over in less than a second. I hit the water smoothly, going straight through it as if it’s made of soft foam. No smack or slap, just a soft embrace sucking me in. Then I’m straight out of the water and back up the steps, like a child. This is incredible. It’s so much easier than I expected. Again, I pierce the water cleanly, straight as an arrow.
On the third dive, however, my concentration slips, my hands flail apart on impact, and my head hits the water with a smack. Fito tells me not to worry, that I have to do it wrong a few times in order to remember to do it right.
After about 10 more dives, some better than others, he motions to the five-metre board. If I can dive from there, I think, I’ll have cracked it. I’m feeling confident as I scale the steps. But then I get on to the board and look down.
“You’ll be fine,” Fito says from below. I nod. Arms locked, legs locked. But it’s so high. I suddenly feel dreamy. I have to remind myself where I am, that I’m about to dive. I step forward … but I can’t do it. I step back.
Fito encourages me again. “You can do it”, he says.
“OK, I’m doing it,” I shout. I take a purposeful step forward, bend at the waist, look down at the shimmering water.
A childhood memory flashes through my mind. I’m sitting on my bike, about to tip over the edge of a stupidly steep woodland slope, about to smash myself to pieces. “No,” I say. Something, some invisible force, pulls me back.
“Take your time,” says Fito. But a safety alarm is ringing in my head. Earlier, talking about his cliff-diving days, Fito had told me that he is a thrill-seeker. But I’m not. I like to challenge myself, but rather than hurling myself out of my comfort zone, I prefer to expand its limits from the inside.
So I step back. Maybe after another session on the three-metre board, I would be ready. Maybe then it would feel like a natural progression. But this is as far as the road goes today. I dived from platforms three times higher than ever before. I’m content with that.
It’s only later, on the way home, that I feel a little pang of disappointment. Why didn’t I do it? In my memory, the platform height has already shrunk.
“Next time,” I think. “Next time.”
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