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COLUMNISTS

Wed, August 25, 2004

Sterling comeback for Despatie


ATHENS -- He hadn't pulled a Perdita, but when Alexandre Despatie climbed out of the pool following his third dive, he probably felt every bit as bad.

Coming out of a reverse three-and-a-half somersault a fraction of a second too early, he splashed into the pool with an impact he figured meant just one thing.

It's over.

"After that third dive, I thought I was out of the race," said the mop-topped Montrealer.

"I went into the (change) room, sat down and I did feel a lot of anger and sadness because things had been going so well."

With three dives to go and Chinese diver Peng Bo leading a brilliantly strong field, Canada's 19-year-old diving phenom quickly refocused while his coach squirmed.

"I was thinking exactly what Alex was thinking -- making that mistake at this level can cost a lot," said coach Michel Larouche, who watched Despatie jeopardize all medal hopes by falling to a distant third in the standings.

"But I looked in his eyes and he was really, really focused. He knew what to do. He turned the page and he came back strong."

Did he ever.

Bouncing back with the second and third-best dives of the fourth and fifth rounds, it all came down to the sixth and final dive to complete a comeback so improbable Despatie himself would be the last to believe it.

"When I got up on the board, I was thinking I was definitely out of the race for the medals," said Despatie, never one to watch his competitors or the scoreboard.

"The competition is so strong you're not allowed to miss one, so I just wanted to finish strong, and I did. When I heard the crowd cheering, I knew everybody was going to be with me no matter what. When I looked up and saw second on the scoreboard I couldn't believe it. You think it's so far away and then it's there -- it's just the most amazing surprise. I get goose bumps thinking about it."

Cupping his hand over his mouth and wearing the type of wide-eyed look generally reserved for kids on Christmas mornings, the shocked teen hugged both his coaches at once. By virtue of the round's best dive, Despatie inched past his childhood idol, Russia's Dmitri Sautin, by the slimmest of margins and into the silver medal spot behind Bo.

Six years after introducing himself to the world as a 13-year-old Commonwealth Games champ, Despatie had become Canada's first male diving medallist in Olympic lore.

"I definitely don't feel like I lost the gold," said the aspiring actor.

Funny, the rest of Canada does, especially after hearing so much about the kid who finished fourth in Sydney.

Thing is, the 3m springboard isn't even his big event.

Despatie's true brilliance is generally reserved for the 10m platform where the defending world champion will try to add Olympic gold to the medal collection his mom organizes back home.

Knowing Despatie was clinging to third place and that his medal fate hung in the balance of his final dive, Larouche started bouncing around when the youngster come up with his best dive of the night.

"Alexandre is like a kid to me so it's very emotional," said Larouche. "When (he won silver) you see all those years goes by. The little kid he was and he's progressing so well. He was very short, very cute too and bright, reacting quickly to feedback."

So cute was he as a 4-foot-11, 13-year-old, Despatie fully acknowledged there was a time he could count on judges to give him "cute points." No longer -- he earned every one of them last night.

"He has to perform like men perform, otherwise it's not going to happen," Larouche said. "For sure, when you first see him he looks cute, but when you start competing against the others you're not cute anymore because you're a danger."

Only his competitors see him as a danger.

The rest of the world sees him as an Olympic medallist.

How cute is that?


Does Canada's low-medal haul in Athens bother you?
Yes, it depresses me
No, it's just sports
I'm disappointed, but not worried
We'll get 'em in Turin
Don't care

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