IT’S hard for your eyes not to be drawn to the 10m high diving platform when you walk into the expansive surrounds of the Royal Commonwealth Pool.
I’ve watched Olympian Tom Daley, pictured below, perform a back two-and-a-half somersault, with two-and-a-half twists from that height, albeit from the comfort of my lounge chair.
The thought of throwing myself from that height into the newly- designed dive pool below is an entirely different prospect.
Standing poolside, the reality of what I’m doing sets in and my heart skips a beat. So starts day one of diving lessons.
For the record, I’m a strong swimmer, having spent most of my life in Australia’s sunny climate where learning to excel in the water is almost a birthright.
But diving is a completely different cup of tea. It’s a sport I’ve never tried before, not unlike the hundreds of untried divers who are increasingly taking the plunge at the Dalkeith Road facility.
Indeed, the number enrolled in classes since the upgraded leisure centre re-opened 12 months ago has soared from fewer than 150 to 548 people of all ages.
The spike in interest has coincided with Daley’s heroic showing at last year’s London Olympics, where he won bronze, and the much-maligned yet surprisingly successful ITV reality show Splash!
And it is only going to grow as the FINA World Diving Series, featuring Daley, comes to the city next month.
So I’ve agreed to complete two beginner classes under the tutelage of dive co-ordinator Vicki Tomlinson to find out what all the fuss is about,
My end goal is to leap headfirst off one of the high dive boards and hope it all ends well, but I draw the line on one front – I will not wear Speedos, or “budgie smugglers” as they are widely known Down Under.
On day one of my two-day splash course, I’m asked to warm up first and do several freestyle laps to loosen up.
Vicki then moves me poolside where we practise simply jumping into the water feet first.
It sounds incredibly basic and I feel like a bit of a goose, but the idea is to learn proper techniques and to think carefully about my entry into the water.
Vicky says: “The important thing about diving is not to rush yourself. It takes time. Some of our divers in the pool tonight have been diving for up to seven or eight years. Diving takes time, so don’t expect too much, too soon.”
I’m taught the basic dive position. It’s a ritual that helps prepare the mind, not dissimilar to martial art forms such as taekwondo.
I extend my arms vertically above my head, locking my hands together in a position where my thumbs are tucked inside my palms and my fingers are folded over one other.
As Vicki explains, the consequences of not tightly locking fingers together like this coming headfirst off the 10m platform can easily be a broken thumb.
I’m also instructed to make sure my arms are locked tight up against my ears, cushioning my head in the process. I’ll learn later what comes of not sticking to this basic principle.
We then move to the 1m springboard to repeat the technique.
The first real mistake I make is my tendency to leap forward off the board. As Vicki instructs, the idea is to jump straight upwards, achieving as much height as possible.
The spring from the board automatically propels the body forward, with the goal to land in the water as close to the board as possible.
The unforgettable image of American diver Greg Louganis hitting his head on the board during the 3m springboard competition at the 1988 Seoul Olympics flashes through my mind, but I’m reassured not to worry.
We also test my flexibility.
I’m asked to jump off the springboard, temporarily grab my knees in the tuck position and then enter the water feet first. Another test is to attempt to touch my toes in the air.
In judging diver potential, Vicki says: “We’re looking for flexibility, strength, power. A really big thing is co-ordination as well – obviously you’re trying to fit in multiple somersaults and twists.
“A background in gymnastics, trampolining and dance also helps.”
Alas, I have none of those.
Moving up to the 3m springboard and my first dive headfirst is a flop. I unconsciously brace for impact and slightly take one of the arms away from my head as I hit the water.
I come up for air feeling like I’ve suffered a mild form of whiplash, all because I didn’t stick to the technique.
But I get right back on the horse and repeat the dive, this time getting the entry right and keeping my legs relatively straight.
Vicki compliments me for my effort and I find myself grinning like a schoolkid.
A video replay system installed next to the dive pool as part of the £37 million refurbishment allows me to watch my dive as if I was sitting at home in front of the TV. It’s an educational, if somewhat embarrassing, experience. I hit the showers feeling surprisingly drained from the session.
Learning diving from the start requires a certain element of swallowing your pride. The second session starts by watching teenagers Courtney Ross and Amber Foster, from Edinburgh Diving School, completing technically difficult synchronised dives before my eyes despite being less than half my age. Vicki reassures me the pair have 15 years’ diving experience between them, which eases the humiliation somewhat.
For my second lesson, the coach is getting me used to the sensation of rolling through the air before I hit the water.
I practice literally sitting on the edge of the board, rolling forwards through the air and entering headfirst with my legs fully extended.
Our photographer arrives and I tell Vicki I’m feeling confident about tackling the 5m platform.
Diving club member Aaron Daly, 11, completes a forward somersault while I contemplate the drop after climbing several flights of stairs.
Like other heights, the first step is to jump in feet first. It’s important to be well balanced on take-off. As the height increases, so does the margin for error and a poor initial jump means I won’t fall straight through the air and the entry is messy.
Following several test runs, it’s time. I walk to the edge of the platform, assume the standard dive position, take several deep breaths, bend at the waist so I’m staring towards the water and leap.
The fall is a split second, but time seems to slow dramatically. My entry to the water is smooth, with the one error that I again bend my legs slightly at the last minute. The overall sensation is thrilling. Like everything, practice makes perfect. Five successive attempts later and I’m looking much more the part.
Diving Club head coach Mary Sless congratulates me on going off the 5m platform on my second lesson.
Vicki adds: “You get some people who come here who are fearless and they’ll go off the 5m and the 7m platforms after a few lessons, and then some people build up and they take up to a couple of years to get up to the platforms.”
I may not have leapt from the 10m platform or completed a forward two-and-a-half somersaults in the pike position, but after two hours of solid diving I leave with a new, healthy appreciation of the sport.
Vicky says she believes the recent interest is more than a fad. “I think it’s a really exciting sport – thanks to the Olympics and Tom Daley, everyone’s now had the opportunity to see diving whereas that wasn’t always the case before.”
In short, the sport is addictive and when you nail a dive, no matter how simple, it’s supremely satisfying.
And if you don’t believe me, give it a go yourself.