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COLUMNISTS

Sat, August 28, 2004

Huge fuss over tiny teen


ATHENS -- As Bryan Nickson steadies his 4-ft. 6-in., 66-lb. body in a handstand position on the edge of the 10-metre diving platform, you half expect his mother to run out and yell at him to stop horsing around.

Instead, the shouts that greeted all six of his preliminary dives yesterday came from thousands of new fans at the Olympic aquatic centre who wholeheartedly embraced the youngest male competitor of these Games.

"You just look at him and you want to hug the little boy," Canadian coach Michel Larouche said of the 14-year-old, who looks more like nine or 10.

"He's a little kid and everybody loves him. That support from the crowd was a real thrill. He reminds me of Alex."

Alexandre Despatie, that is.

It's Larouche who started coaching Despatie at age five, helping the mop-topped Montrealer progress to the point he was unveiled to the world at

13 when he competed in the 1998 Commonwealth Games in Malaysia. It was there he won gold, earning him a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records as the youngest competitor to win an international diving event.

"It's funny because before we started this event, I looked at that kid and he was about the same height as Alex was and all the crowd just started to cheer for Alex, too (in 1998). It was the same atmosphere," Larouche said.

"Nickson is from Malaysia, too. It's amazing how things come around."

Indeed, the parallels between the two diving phenoms are striking, which was made clear when Nickson spoke to a handful of curious reporters after the event.

His short hair tossed, his yellow shirt hanging down to his knees and his grin as big as his accomplishment, Nickson's eyes widened when asked who his hero is. Despite a language barrier that requires his coach to translate the query, the youngster starts to point at his idol before the question is finished.

"Alexandre Despatie -- Canada," Nickson said, pointing to the world 10m champion standing 15 ft. away.

"He is a very good diver with lots of power in his dives."

Yesterday, Despatie put that power on display once again, finishing second in a preliminary round that narrowed the field to 18 from 33 for today's semifinal.

Unfortunately, Nickson's valiant efforts landed him 19th and out of the semis.

"I enjoyed the Games but I feel like I can do better," said Nickson, who admitted he has spent all his down time in the athletes village playing video games.

Added translator Edwin Chong: "He's not mad, he's disappointed."

You wouldn't know it from the smile on his face, as the shy youngster seemed to enjoy a coming-out party that everyone at the pool seemed to embrace, including Despatie.

"He reminds me a lot of myself in '98 at the Commonwealth Games, having the crowd behind him and all that stuff. It's exactly how it was for me," said Despatie, who was satisfied, not thrilled, with his performance yesterday.

"He's a very, very good diver, very talented.

"He should work very hard because he has great potential."

Many believe when Nickson returns for his second Olympics he'll be a legitimate medal threat, as Despatie will be today.

"It's too early to think about Beijing," Nickson said.

He has plenty of homework to finish first.


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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