It’s not very often that you find a sport where your competitors feel sad when you fail and gift them gold. Especially when it’s at the World Championships. But that is exactly the sport Jack Laugher finds himself in and the situation he found himself in, in Gwangju back in July.
Having been over 30 points ahead going into the final dive in the men’s 3m springboard, catastrophe struck as he failed his entry on his back 3-½ somersault tuck, to lose the World Championship and hand gold to defending champion Xie Siyi. But Xie was sad for the Briton – sad that the man he calls his “greatest rival” fell at the last hurdle, to bring a world-class and potential record-breaking performance to an abrupt halt. To put it into context, with a failed final dive resulting in just 30.60 points, Laugher still managed a podium place with third, also behind Olympic champion Cao Yuan.
And, not surprisingly, he wishes he could turn back the clock and undo that mistake. “I can’t go back in time, no matter how much I want to,” he said of his loss.
However, for the athlete with an Olympic gold medal to his name having triumphed in the 3m springboard synchro with Chris Mears back at Rio 2016, he was able to look past his disappointment at not adding the world title to his achievements. He now sees the positive side, as not winning leaves him without the added pressure that the world crown brings in the lead-up to the Olympic Games, and the reassurance for his fans who also felt the agony of that final dive: “Obviously I would love to be a world champion but it’s OK. It’s all right,” he says…
I’m not as natural as some of the other people
How are you feeling a few months on from Gwangju, now that you have had time to put what happened in that last dive in the 3m springboard into perspective?
Obviously at the time I was pretty annoyed, being in such a good position, potentially getting my first-ever world title in such a difficult sport to break out against the Chinese and be so far ahead. Then to end up in third place is extremely disappointing but I had to just reflect on it. The next day I was already, not over it as such, but I’d already sat down and thought about it. I had so many conversations with my coach afterwards to understand what happened and what we could do to rectify it. Now it’s happened I’m quite glad in a way that I’ve had the time to work on it for next year. We’re going to change around the diving order potentially because it’s happened twice now and both times it’s where I’ve been winning and on for a world record. I way prefer it happened this year than next year in Tokyo. All these learning curves that have happened over my entire life, you know I’ve had some terrible ones: I’ve failed a dive at the Olympics in 2012 – but for me as an athlete it makes me better and it makes me stronger. I’m not as natural as some of the other people, I have to learn from my mistakes quite a lot but I think that’s part of my journey. Even though it sucks, I’m still happy that people still notice how well I was doing and the hard work that I put into the sport every single day. I’m trying to push the sport forward and people know that but you know, it would be nice if it went right of course!
A lot of people felt for you when that happened, it must be nice to know you have a lot of support?
Realistically in diving it’s pretty much the whole world against China. China are so dominant in the sport and when anyone does well from any nation everyone gets behind them and roots for them. So I know I’ve got a lot of support across all the nations – including China – I know they were sad for me and I’ve got some real good friends on the circuit. It’s really nice that all the coaches, support staff, all the divers and athletes were wanting me to do well but I know they know, and I know as well, how good I can be. I like to think I’m saving it in the bag for next year.
What is your relationship like with your Chinese competitors?
It’s really nice to be held up amongst some amazing athletes that I consider out-of-this-world athletes in diving. Me and Siyi Xie, we have a really good relationship I’d say, and although there’s a bit of a language barrier, I think that we are really respectful of each other. When he does well I’m really happy for him and when I do well he’s really happy for me as well. But it’s even better when we both do well and it’s a good challenge and a good rivalry. It is really nice to have a friend and competitor in one.
We should have noticed that was a threat to the final
Have you discovered what caused the error in that last dive?
Well I did the same error in the semi-final. I did it a year and a half before in a competition – actually in Guangzhou, China. Basically it happened in the semi-final because it was such a long day. We just thought it was a bit of a concentration lapse and we didn’t really think into it too much. The main thing we’ve talked about is that we should have noticed that was a threat to the final. That the next day we weren’t going and practising the basics and working through the skill chains and we were just doing exactly all the normal competition prep, and I think that was where the problem lay. We didn’t take the signs that were presented in front of us as seriously as maybe we should have done. All my downfalls I’ve ever had in diving, I’ve always thought they are blessings in disguise, to help me move forward.
How was your mental state going into last dive as you were obviously still confident?
I was still confident, I always track how I’m doing throughout the competition and I’ve won a lot of competitions in my life, I know how it feels to win and I know what the levels of concentration and everything that you need. I know what it feels like to do that last dive. I’ve been in that position countless times before and still succeeded.
Well you still got the bronze medal…
I needed two points to get a medal, that’s how well I was doing, so for me I’ve been in that position so many times across World Series, Commonwealth Games, Europeans, Olympic Games even. I knew that we were winning before the last dive of the Olympic Games and I still produced a good dive on the final dive. It’s something to work on and it happens. I can’t go back in time, no matter how much I want to. I think it’s nice enough to come into this year without the pressure of being the world champion because there’s a lot that hangs on that. There’s a lot of expectation that comes from yourself but also other athletes and the media as well. Building up towards the Olympics is going to be huge around Team GB and the pressure is something that I’m not sad that I don’t have. Obviously I would love to be a world champion but it’s OK. It’s all right.
I just wanted to cry
We could see that your girlfriend and team-mate Lois Toulson consoled you afterwards?
It’s really nice having someone in my life who is going through similar things to what I am. People don’t quite understand it to the level that she does and I think that she’s my biggest supporter. I got angry after my dive. My strength and conditioning coach (Paul Murphy) is a really close friend of mine and I cried in his arms just briefly and then I was OK. Then when I saw Lois that was it, I couldn’t take any more, I just wanted to let it all out. I felt like at the time I’d let her down. My mum and my brother came out to Gwangju, Lois’s mum came out for the first competition in a long time to see me, and I felt like I’d let them down and it was just a really, really bad feeling. Although they were so proud of me because I’d got that Olympic spot and the silver medal in synchro, and a medal in individual and an Olympic spot there as well, that’s just when the realisation came through and I just wanted to cry. I’m a very emotional guy anyway and emotion plays a big part for me in the sport that I do.
How are your Olympic preparations going, especially now having qualified in the way that you did?
In synchro I knew it was going to be a really hard push because me and Dan (Goodfellow) are a new synchro pair and going out there and trying to get a medal was almost too difficult. I wasn’t 100 per cent sure if we’d do it but our preparation was really good and we ended up coming away with a silver medal. In individual I knew, I’ve got a lot of confidence in myself, so I knew I could final and get that spot for Team GB. I’d say preparation is going really well so far, I’ve got those spots and I think that puts me in a really good position for next year because I don’t have to go to the World Cup now with the pressure of trying to qualify for the Olympic Games. I’ve seen some great teams and great athletes not make it before and that’s the harsh reality of it. Four years down the drain. So for us it’s brilliant we’ve got the whole year we can prepare our dives and really focus on what we need to do rather than getting too worked up about the qualifiers.
And finally… your fellow diver Yona Knight-Wisdom has said that he likes to tease you about your 5ft 5ins (1.65m) height compared to his 6ft 2ins (1.88m) – what is your response?
Me and Yona have quite a good level of competition and banter between us, we’ve been best friends since maybe we were 10 or 11 years old. I mean, he knows I dish it out as much as he gives it to me, so he’s probably heard everything under the sun about his height! I’ve always got that stellar response: that I’m the Olympic champion.
Me and Siyi Xie, we have a really good relationship I’d say, and although there’s a bit of a language barrier, I think that we are really respectful of each other.
*This article can be found in the FINA Magazine. To access the online version of the magazine (2019/6) click here.