Midway through a Wednesday morning practice session, Jennifer Abel leaps from the three-metre board at the Pan-Am Aquatics Centre, flips and twirls in the air then points her body straight down.
Abel, a double silver medallist at last year’s Commonwealth Games, hits the water so quickly and smoothly she barely creases the surface, and executes the dive so cleanly athletes and coaches at the session applaud her. Among hundreds of dives attempted by Pan Am competitors, Abel’s effort stood out.
And among the thousands of athletes hoping to use the Pan Am Games as a springboard to success and mainstream fame at next year’s Olympics, the folks at Diving Canada want to make sure four of their athletes grab and hold your attention.
Abel and fellow springboard specialist Pamela Ware, along with platform divers Meaghan Benfeito and Roseline Filion have won so many medals on the World Cup circuit Diving Canada has nicknamed them the FAB IV. And to prep the public for their Pan Am performances the organization published a 36-page media guide filled with stats, candids and glamour shots.
The divers find the attention amusing, but two days ahead of the Pan Am diving competition they said the notoriety won’t mean much if they don’t produce in the pool.
“We’re divers, we’re not pop stars,” says platform diver Meaghan Benfeito. “We’re here to perform as best we can, to win as many medals as we can.”
If Diving Canada’s press package on the four divers feels a little like a marketing pitch, that’s not a coincidence. The person who conceived it, Lawrence Baslaw, serves as Diving Canada’s marketing manger and is an agent for each of the featured competitors.
That’s why alongside their accomplishments — the four have won a combined 47 medals in World Cup competition since 2102 — the document is also heavy on away-from-the-pool content. There’s a recreation of the Beatles’ Abbey Road album cover, the four women pictured in profile as they march through a crosswalk. And it features several photos of the women, together and individually, dressed up like models.
“We’re really down-to-earth girls and our main goal is training and competing and performing,” Filion says.
Aggressive pre-Olympic marketing campaigns built around an athlete’s looks can sometimes backfire. In the lead-up to the 2012 Olympic Games U.S. hurdler Lolo Jones racked up endorsement deals and earned the type of media attention usually reserved for gold-medal favourites. And when The New York Times pointed out Jones’ on-track performance made her a medal long shot, and that she benefitted from a well-timed marketing push, critics blasted the paper even as Jones finished fifth in London.
But the four women leading Canada’s diving team into Pan Ams enter the competition as solid gold-medal contenders.
Benfeito and Filion won the 10-metre synchro diving gold medal at the Commonwealth Games last year and earned bronze at the FINA World Cup. Abel and Ware won World Cup silver in three-metre synchro, and Abel won bronze in the individual event.
Shortly after finals on Sunday, Canada’s divers will travel to Kazan, Russia for the world championships. And when competition begins on July 24, the Canadians will be favourites there, too.
“It’s two big competitions right in a row and you can feel we’re getting a little big more nervous than usual,” Abel says. “But we have a good staff behind us to deal with that. It helps us to be more calm.”
Earning the fame that leads to photo shoots means fighting through some un-glamourous moments.
Benfeito recalls slamming into the water stomach first at 35 km/h while warming up for a meet in 2007. When she emerged from the poo,l she felt queasy and spit out blood.
Apparently that happens to every diver, so Benfeito reacted the way divers do. She climbed back up the tower and started the competition.
“It is scary. I’m not going to lie.” she says. “It’s 10 metres high and the water does hurt but you have to go back up right away. If not, you’re never going to get over it.”