MANCHESTER, England, AFP
Alexandre Despatie is a Commonwealth Games diving veteran at 17, while Irina Lashko will make her Commonwealth debut at the age of 29 after years of representing Russia in international competition.
Despatie captured hearts in Kuala Lumpur when he won the 10m platform gold medal — and burst into tears.
Since then the Canadian child prodigy has matured, and he’s on course for a best ever year with three Grand Prix vicories this season on the platform and five national titles.
Although Despatie was a disappointing fifth in the platform at the Diving World Cup in Seville in June, his coach put it down to fatigue.
Despatie did capture a surprise silver in the 1m springboard in Seville, positioning himself as a contender in the 1m springboard in the Commonwealth Games, a title that in 1998 went to Zimbabwe’s Evan Stewart.
Stewart was the only diver in 1998 to edge out Canada and Australia for gold, and the diving competition in Manchester looks like another duel between the two aquatics powers.
Australia boasts a new weapon in Lashko, who moved to Australia in 1997 and married Australian business man, Karol Furzer, the following year.
She became an Australian citizen in 1999 but couldn’t compete for her new country in the 2000 Sydney Olympics because of eligibility rules.
Her haul of medals for Australia includes a World Championships silver, World Cup silver and bronze, Grand Prix gold (two), silver (two) and a Goodwill Games silver.
Lashko is Australia’s most consistent performer heading into the Commonwealth Games and would love to win a gold medal wearing the Australian colors.
Despite a somewhat disappointing performance in the Seville World Cup, head coach Hui Tong said his team’s Commonwealth Games prospects were good.
“We were able to recover after the poor individual performances to dive extremely well in the synchro, and that shows spirit,” Hui said. “We know we have the technical ability. What we need is consistency.
“I don’t think we should panic just yet,” he added.
“When our divers nail their dives they can outperform anyone and will still go into the Commonwealth Games as favorites for most events.”
Synchronized diving isn’t on the Commonwealth Games programmed, which features 1m and 3m springboard and 10m platform for both men and women.
Divers will compete from July 25-27 at the 32 million-pound Manchester Aquatic Center, which also hosts synchronized swimming and competitive swimming.
Despite the strength of the Canadian and Australian teams, England is counting on the home-pool advantage to boost its medal hopes.
British champion and former Commonwealth team member Jane Smith, who returned to training last December after six months rehabilitating her surgically repaired shoulder, was an encouraging sixth at the Canadian grand prix event in May.
“We are capable of winning three, maybe four medals at the Games,” said National coach Julian Bellan.
“It is a plus that we are on home soil as this is a great confidence builder.
“Support from the home crowd increases self belief, which knocks your performance up a gear.” 43