Poster boy Tom Daley, the success of TV’s Splash! and a golden 2012 have seen diving explode. Much of the sport’s top talent owes its education to Leeds. Jonathan Brown reports.
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 10m above the water with one of two outcomes likely.
Get it right and your vertical entry into the water is all but a subtle coolant; 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 reality 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 – drawn in by the adrenaline-fuelled sport.
But after injuring his wrist during a painful 10 metre dive, Adam, who lives in Bramley, continued practising on what turned out to be an undiagnosed broken scaphoid bone which put pay to his promising career.
Now the age group diving coach at the City of Leeds Diving Club, the 23-year-old is helping the next generation of Olympians hone their skills at the John Charles Centre for Sport, in Beeston.
Watching on as four hopefuls leapt from the world class facility’s springboards, he said: “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.”
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.
Unbeknownst to many Leeds residents, the city hosts the country’s most successful diving club with Olympians and up and coming stars continually coming through the ranks.
The City of Leeds Diving Club produced nearly half of the Team GB divers who took to the boards at the London 2012 Olympics.
Adam said: “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.”
He said 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 in Leeds.
The move is understandable when you consider that a team of four British Diving coaches, including the 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 that has seen the likes of Woodlesford’s 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 this 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 said.
“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.
Alwoodley’s 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.
She said: “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.”
High diving prospect James Denny, 20, from Garforth, fell into the sport through a chance summer camp eight years ago and is now aiming 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,” added 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.”
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.