When the whistle goes, she goes, whether she’s ready or not.
Jennifer Abel has discovered it’s best not to think at all before executing the most difficult dive in the women’s three-metre springboard event.
Most divers take five or 10 seconds, after the referee blows the whistle, to collect themselves and run through final cues for the somersaults and twists they’ll do before, hopefully, sliding into the water with an imperceptible splash.
“When you’re thinking for five seconds, you can think about a lot of things,” says Abel, who won an Olympic bronze medal with Emilie Heymans in synchronized diving in London in 2012.
That’s when fear and doubts can creep in, the exact opposite of the bold confidence needed to execute a dive that is so hard even the dominant Chinese women stay away from it.
The 5154b, as judges know it, is a forward facing dive of 2 1/2 somersaults with two twists in the pike position. It’s a lot to get done in just a second and a half.
“It’s a men’s dive,” says Diving Canada’s technical director, Mitch Geller, noting that male divers have the strength to get more height off the springboard and rotate fast enough to complete all of the elements in time.
All springboard divers, male and female, are incredibly strong for their size, but this manoeuvre simply requires more brute strength than most female divers have.
Abel, 22, and her new synchro partner, 21-year-old Pamela Ware, are believed to be the only women in the world to have attempted this dive in competition. This season, they plan to use it in top international meets in individual events and debut the dive in synchro.
It’s all in the hopes of gaining an advantage over Chinese divers, who seem to have the market cornered on precision and perfect entries, in time for the 2016 Rio Olympics
On Sunday, Abel will make the double twisting 2 1/2 the fourth of her five dives at the winter nationals in Toronto. That competition is also a test event for the new aquatics centre built for this summer’s Pan Am Games. Ware, coming back from an abdominal injury, isn’t entered this weekend.
Abel and Ware have the “exceptional strength and power” needed for the dive, but it’s still “on the cusp of capabilities,” says Geller. That makes it a risky choice. “The closer you are to the limits of your capabilities, the greater the chance of a big mishap.”
In diving, that can be anything from hitting the board to entering the water with a cannonball splash.
The decision process is similar to a golfer choosing whether to let it rip and go for the green or play it safe and lay up short.
The team believes the risk is worth the reward. The dive carries a 3.4 degree of difficulty, while the rest of the top women’s field generally uses 3.0 and 3.1 dives. Execution scores for each dive are multiplied by the difficulty to get the result.
“You get more respect when you try new things in the world and you try to be ahead of the pack, and not just doing what everyone else does,” says Abel’s coach, Arturo Miranda.
Besides, he adds, Abel can do the dive just fine: “Jen can do it as well as men. She just needs to realize it.”
She first tried the men’s element right after the 2008 Beijing Olympics, where she placed 13th as a 16-year-old. But she couldn’t do it well enough to include in her five-dive program, so she dropped it before the London Olympics, where she finished sixth in singles and won bronze in synchro.
Now, she’s ready to try again.
“If I do four really good dives and I nail this one, it will be the dive that might put me on the first step of the podium,” Abel says. “I’m starting to be confident (with the dive), but it’s the difference between when you know something and when you believe it.”
Abel is part of the Canadian team’s Fab IV, with Ware and tower divers Meaghan Benfeito and Roseline Filion. They won 36 international medals last season and are expected to be stars at this summer’s Pan Am Games, then Olympic medal contenders next year in Rio.
Strong as they are, the top step of the podium in the biggest events has proven elusive. That’s why the double twisting 2 1/2 dive is so appealing.
“It could get us closer to the Chinese,” Ware says.
Just like Abel, Ware says she’s working on confidence as much as the dive itself.
“I feel like my heart starts beating faster,” Ware says of trying it out in competition.
“I tell myself: It’s just practice. You have to do it like practice,” she says, adding that she has no trouble performing the manoeuvre then. “Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.”