In 2016, Oliver Dingley became the first Irish diver to qualify for the Olympics in 68 years.
For those few weeks, the Irish public became enthralled with the mesmerising sport, once again able to take pride in the fact that one of their own was lining up against the best in the world on the biggest stage.
As proud as the nation was, it was nothing compared to the emotions felt by Dingley and his team who had been working towards this moment since his first stepped on a springboard.
“2016 was a very special year. For any athlete, it isn’t just a four-year cycle, it’s a life’s worth of work which isn’t just an individual’s doing, you have a whole network of people around you such as your family, your coaches, your friends, everyone’s invested.
“They were most amazing few weeks of my life, I’ll never forget them. Walking out into the opening ceremony in the Maracanã and then to compete at the Olympics and make an Olympic final, it was absolutely fantastic.”
Dingley’s final dive was RTÉ’s highest rating sports event at the Olympics that year with an average of 388,000 viewers. Not that he had much of an inkling of the stir he was making at home.
“To be fair, no I didn’t know much about it because you’re kind of in this big bubble, you don’t really know what’s going on anywhere in the world. You’re in this village of about 10,000 people and you’re so focused on what you have to do. I for one completely forgot to even check up on the outside world so I didn’t really know what was going on.
“In a way, that was a blessing in disguise, I wasn’t really worrying too much about everyone back home. At the same time, when you make it to a final, you do get a sense of the buzz, you have a packed out arena, several thousand people, you have TV cameras on one side so it’s a good chance to show off and show what you’ve been working on as well.
“I didn’t realise how many people were watching back home so I feel very, very lucky that I was given that opportunity and I had an absolutely fantastic time there.”
Instead of checking in on the outside world, Dingley emersed himself in the Olympic experience. Having traveled to Rio during the qualification event, he was not distracted by an urge to visit all the sights the culturally rich city has to offer, rather he preferred to spend his time in the village and interacting with athletes from every corner of the globe.
“I was the only diver there so I didn’t have any immediate teammates. Obviously you have the whole of Team Ireland but they’re doing their separate things so I just made the most of it and chatted to anyone who would listen to me.
“I spent a lot of time in the food hall meeting lots of athletes, I really tried to live the Olympic experience. I was there for such a long time, I was competing on day 10 of the games so I think I was there for 15 days in the Olympic Village before I even competed.
“So I watched lots of sport, I mingled alongside different athletes, and I really just tried to embrace it really. And of course there’s free food in the athletes food hall so I made the most of that place as well!”
Every aspect of diving is technical from the process of selecting your dives 24 hours in advance of competition to every action your body and mind make during those crucial seconds before you hit the water.
There are six dives in a competition each with varying levels of difficulty after which the competitors are scored via a complicated system.
“When you submit your dive list, you have to submit the dives you’re going to do 24 hours before the event, after 24 hours you are not allowed to change the dives”, Dingley explains.
“For example, when I was in Rio, it was outdoor diving and you have to be more tactical with outdoor diving. You have the element of the weather, it could be windy and if you have to do a really hard dive, that makes it really hard.
“In Rio, we had a plan, a bit easier in the preliminary because it was a really windy day. August in Brazil can get really wet and windy because it’s their winter and then we pulled out bigger dives in the semi-final and final. Sometimes it’s about tactics but you have to cover a certain amount of groups as well, so you have a forwards, a back, a reverse-inwards and a twist and you have to repeat one group as well.”
Twelve divers took part in the 3-metre springboard final in Rio and with each having to complete six dives, you can just imagine the waiting around that the athletes have to contend with before they can step back on the board.
Dingley ensured that this time was occupied. He relaxed, prepared and visualised what was about to come.
“I’m not one for being by myself so I always ask one of my teammates to chill out with me in between dives, whether that’s kicking a football around or chatting to someone.
“And then about 15 minutes before my dive, I’ll start warming up, I’ll listen to a bit of music and then I do lots of drills, practice drills for the dive I’m going to do and then I also do imagery drills. I try and visualise the dive as well.
“It’s just such a technical sport that you really want to visualise what you want to do because it reinforces the points that you need to work on.”
Dingley admits that he still gets nervous before events. So much can go wrong in diving, one wrong move, one millisecond out of time, and the dive can fall apart and your chances are over.
Yet at the Olympics, where you would imagine every emotion is amplified tenfold, he felt nothing but a sense of calmness and satisfaction as he joined his opponents for the pre-final parade.
“Being on the board was pretty stressful but walking out in the parade just before the final, I felt like I couldn’t stop grinning, walking out into this packed out arena and they call out your name and country.
“It’s a weird one because in hindsight, I don’t think I was as stressed as I was in other events, I think it was a sense of ‘I made it, so enjoy it.’
“I really just took it one dive at a time and obviously you have to concentrate during the competitions, there’s no real time to smile or let your hair down, you have to be on it throughout. But at the same time, you kind of feel like you’re in a bit of a film as well because they like to play music in diving, between each dive so you get pumped-up music playing and the crowd get behind you so it’s a really good atmosphere and just to be a part of that was phenomenal.”
Dingley eventually finished eighth in the final, setting a new personal best and Irish record along the way. Having dived since he was seven years old, it must have been an overwhelmingly proud moment for him and his family.
And certainly one he can’t wait to experience again. All going well, Dingley will return to the springboard to represent Ireland at the Olympic Games in Tokyo next summer with as much enthusiasm and vigour as he brought to Rio.
“I was in the middle of qualifying for Tokyo, myself and the rest of my teammates were supposed to be going out to Tokyo in April to qualify for the Olympics. You get one chance to qualify for the Olympics and, obviously, that got cancelled. I always think it’s better to be safe than sorry, there’s much bigger things out there in the world than sport.
“The good thing about sport as well when the Olympics does take place is it really brings a good sense of community spirit out. That’s the special thing about sport is how it brings people together.
“Someone once described it to me as ‘the goal is still the same it’s just the goalposts have moved’. I still have the hunger for it and I’ve been absolutely loving getting back into training after having so much time off, it really makes you appreciate what you have.
“It gives me another year to focus and knuckle down on those things that I can improve on so hopefully I can come out of it an even better diver as well.”