Interview: Diver Grace Reid pondered quitting at 14 to be ‘normal’

Grace Reid competes in the women's 3m springboard at Royal Commonwealth Pool during the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games. Picture: Quinn Rooney/Getty Images
Grace Reid competes in the women's 3m springboard at Royal Commonwealth Pool during the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games. Picture: Quinn Rooney/Getty Images
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The rules are embedded in a generation’s consciousness like an especially stubborn verruca on a big toe but Grace Reid, brilliant diver, bonnie lass and definitely not of that generation, just laughs.

“What were they again?” she says. “‘No running, no pushing, no handstands… ’”

Don’t forget “No bombing” and “No smoking,” I say, and the last to be properly understood: “No petting.”

There’s one missing. “Wasn’t there ‘No diving’ too?” she says. Not quite – there was “No swimming in the diving area” – but by the time Reid had fallen in love with the sport which would eventually bring her golden Gold Coast glory she might have wondered if “No diving in the swimming area” was the new hardline legislation.

“I was at a pool in Bonnyrigg, aged seven or eight maybe,” she remembers. “If there wasn’t a notice on the wall telling you not to dive then the lifeguard was certainly going round with his whistle making sure you didn’t. I wanted to dive – that’s what I was there for. I waited until the lifeguard was at the far end of the pool and tried to sneak in a wee one. He spun round and peeped at me – he must have known what I was going to do. ‘No diving,’ he shouted. My dad heard him but didn’t know I was the culprit. ‘I take it that was you, Grace,’ he said as we drove home. And I don’t think that happened only once!”

We talk about the changing world of swimming pools, the 
diving demoness and me, and how they’re no longer “baths” but “swim centres”. Health & Safety seems to have cracked down on deep ends – and diving boards. I tell Reid how the pool where I learned to swim not only had a well-used board but a viewing balcony which became the grand, use-your-joker challenge among fearless toerags. “So did you ever dive from there?” she asks. Not bloody likely, I say – far too scared.

I don’t know how Reid does it. Climbs the steps, curls her toes round the end of the board, performs the most graceful flying heidies – she was aptly christened – and collects medals. Charming us all with her megawatt smile, she’s won gold, silver and bronze. She’s won at Euro, Commonwealth and World. And I really don’t know how she does it when she tells me that diving once marked her out as odd and she couldn’t cope, more of which later.

My favourite Grace Reid story comes from the last Olympics in Rio and told of a girl who doesn’t belong to an elite diving nation but just as she was undaunted by fussy Bonnyrigg officialdom, she wasn’t about to be put off by funny-coloured water on the biggest stage.

A French newspaper collected the moans of the divers and there were plenty. America’s Abigail Johnston likened the 2016 outdoor pool to a “swamp”. Italy’s Tania Cagnotto said: “I was worried about the sanitary conditions.” German’s Stephan Feck wrote on Facebook: “The whole venue smells like somebody has farted.” And Australia’s Maddison Keeney remarked: “So unpleasant. I’m glad to be out now. Don’t want to go diving in the swamp again.”

But Reid smiled brightly and said: “We’ve got to be ready for everything. Open air and green water go with the territory. I’m actually glad they didn’t change the water as I’d gotten used 
to it.”

Today she laughs at the memory of her first Olympic final, in which she finished eighth. “It wasn’t that bad; some of the complaints were exaggerated. Yes, it would have been lovely to have clear blue water but I really think athletes should be prepared for the unforeseen and, if it happens, use that as motivation to crack on.

“I wasn’t fazed. Blue sky and blue water would have been more complicated. Others were stressing and panicking but I was like: ‘Right Grace, get your dive done.’”

We’re talking on a rare day when Reid, 22, a veteran of three Commonwealth Games already, doesn’t have to be up at 6am to train and is allowed a later start. So what’s she been doing – dancing round her room to inspirational hero Beyonce with her 
medals round her neck? It immediately becomes apparent that this is exactly the kind of flip remark which someone lacking Reid’s commitment – and, 
given her chosen sport, courage – would make.

“It isn’t about the medals for me,” she explains. “I mean, they’re fantastic and some of them are absolutely breathtaking, but they’re little mementoes of a day which took many days’ hard work and effort. My most recent medal [bronze in the mixed 3m synchronised at last month’s Diving World Cup in Wuhan, China] is in a drawer in my dressing-table. All the others are at my parents’ house back in Edinburgh, probably in a box my dad can’t remember where he’s put. I certainly wasn’t going to trust myself with my Commonwealth gold medal [the Gold Coast’s 1m springboard in April]. Oh my goodness, what if I’d lost it? But as precious as all the medals are, for me it’s on with the next thing. I don’t want to stay in the moment; I want to move forward and keep pushing.”

Maybe with a couple of hours to herself in London, where she’s now based, Reid will facetime her significant other, a fellow diver. “He lives on the other side of the world, which is very frustrating. Geography’s not playing in our favour but he’s a very special person in my life.” She likes to bake (“Empire 
biscuits last night – my best efforts yet”) and read, although the latter comes with hazards. “I love crime fiction, Jo Nesbo especially, although I can really frighten myself. Turning off the light before a competition and thinking you might end up being murdered isn’t really the best preparation.” Or, Oyster card at the ready, she might continue her exploration of the Big Smoke. “I like to pick a new place on the Tube map and head out there, nip along the backstreets and find a nice cafe. Everyone’s trying to make it in London and you’re just a wee fish here and that keeps you grounded.” But she’ll be back in the pool later: move forward, keep pushing.

Diving solo and in tandem – currently with Ross Haslam after previously teaming up with Tom Daley whom she credits with popularising her sport – what does she still want to achieve? “Well, the one everyone is chasing and certainly what I’ve dreamed about since I was a little girl is an Olympic medal. I don’t mind which colour and would be more than happy with a bronze. But, while I’m fortunate to have been quite successful, I don’t think I would stop there. One Commonwealth medal is a fine achievement but maybe I’d like a shot at another. That will be dependent on a few things: for one, whether my body holds out. I’ve been diving for a long time but things that used to be really easy aren’t anymore. I get a stiff back in the mornings now which I never had when I was 16. Mid-twenties, though, is when women springboard divers start to peak and really find their form and hopefully I have that to come.”

Ordinarily, Reid’s day in Canary Wharf starts with porridge, coffee and some meditation, the latter having been incorporated into her routine at the end of last year and obviously helping in bringing that gold home. “Meditation has been good for me,” she says. “I’m the sort of person who likes to operate at top speed and analyse everything. At first it was a really hard concept to grasp: refocusing, getting in check with my body, slowing right down. Now I’m able to relax and have stopped overthinking.”

Before the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo there are next month’s Europeans, mostly centered round Glasgow, although the diving is happening at a venue Reid knows like the back of a water-wrinkled hand – Edinburgh’s Commonwealth Pool – and she’s thrilled about that. “From a selfish point of view, I’ll be able to have a coffee with my mum and walk the family dog but Edinburgh, with the Festival in full swing, will be at its best and I’m always proud when the Commy gets this kind of recognition. I spent my whole childhood in that pool; it’s a place full of wonderful memories for me. I remember being dragged out of the water when I was desperate to keep practising my dives. My poor parents – they sacrificed a lot being sat on the sidelines the whole time.”

The only child of Allan and Liz, Reid’s very first dive wasn’t at the Commy but the pool at Wester Hailes Education Centre. “I was four years old. I spotted the board and decided to give it a shot. I loved diving right away. One of the instructors, who now coaches New Zealand, thought I had some talent and suggested I try the higher boards at the Commy. I just chucked myself off the 10m one and it was fantastic.”

Hang on, I say, as someone who’s ascended those stairs, cocky as hell, and not even peered into the water below before he’s scrambled back down them, tail firmly between legs – wasn’t she scared?

“Not once, never. When I say I overthink there are times, as my mum would tell you, when no thinking goes on whatsoever. I wasn’t scared. When you’re young you’re pretty fearless and a sport like diving reinforces that. It builds up bravery.”

Reid admits to one phobia – snakes. “I’m absolutely terrified of them. In Team GB’s holding camp for Rio a few of us went on a trip to a petting zoo. The keeper said: ‘Who wants to touch this python?’ I have a photograph of everyone struggling to hold it up – it was ginormous – while I’m a few feet away, not just bubbling a little but with tears streaming down my face.”

She needed all her bravery while still at school to continue diving in the face of a battle to conform. The crisis point was after her first Commonwealth Games, in Delhi in 2010, with Reid returning to George Watson’s College to sit S3 exams. “I haven’t really spoken about this before but after the Games I wasn’t really sure I wanted to dive. I was exhausted, I was all over the place and I was craving what I thought was normality.

“The years between Delhi and the next Commonwealths in Glasgow were really tricky. I still dived but the passion wasn’t shining as brightly. I remember saying to my mum: ‘I want to be normal, I want to be normal.’ Normal to me was going up town on Saturday afternoons and not smelling of chlorine. Other girls didn’t get why I was spending three hours training in a pool instead and, to be honest, I didn’t get it either. Your teenage brain can play tricks on you.

“I didn’t enjoy school massively and felt quite isolated because of my diving. That’s a difficult situation for anyone in their teens. It’s tough being different. Then when everyone else was going out drinking and experiencing new, fun things it got even tougher to carry on with the diving.

“But I did. Maybe school wasn’t easy for me but I found new friends and a whole other family in diving. My mum and dad were fantastic but chaperones become second mums and coaches looked after me at camps abroad and I came to look back on adventures like Delhi for what they were – brilliant experiences.”

At 14, Reid had been the baby of Team Scotland. The Games had been strange and surreal, flying right over her head. “I remember standing in a restaurant queue with Usain Bolt unable to make head or tail of the menu. But if I could have said something to my younger self it would have been: ‘For goodness sake, don’t hide what you’re good at or what you love for the sake of being normal. Normal is fine but if you have something 
special, make the most of it.’ And, I realise now, all those awkward and difficult moments were the making of me. They were invaluable to who I’ve become.”

A chat with Grace Reid is a rewarding hour of candour, effervescence and Beyonce’s greatest hits, even if it’s not going to get your correspondent any nearer the business end of a 
diving board.

She says: “I was thinking about this the other day, about how diving is about great, great rewards which come with great, great risks. The time from you taking off to hitting the water is 2.5 seconds – not long! You can do all that training and all that striving for perfection and then the smallest thing will go ever so slightly wrong. That can be demoralising, no doubt about it. But when everything goes right diving is the most exciting sport I know.”

For Grace Reid the water is bright blue even when it’s murky green. And you sense that, even if someone chucked a snake in there, she’d cope.