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COLUMNISTS

Fri, August 13, 2004

Despatie could steal show


ATHENS -- Alexandre Despatie will not be carrying the Canadian flag in the opening ceremony today, but he may well be carrying it -- and a whole lot more -- when the Olympic Games conclude 16 days from now.

The expectations are that high. The possibilities are that real for this Alex P. Keaton of the diving world.

He is the Boy Wonder of the Canadian Olympic team, the star not named Perdita, the constant overachiever: A Commonwealth Games winner at 13; an Olympic fourth-place finisher in Sydney at 15; now here in Athens just barely 19 in search of gold.

"You'll probably find he's the oldest and most mature 19-year-old athlete you've ever met," said Michel Larouche, who has coached Despatie since he was six. "He has always been like this, since I met him, more comfortable with older people, talking about things kids don't talk about.

"For him, playing with kids his own age, he just doesn't like it. They're just not mature enough for him. he's not like any 19-year-old I've known."

Alexandre Despatie wasn't forced to grow up quickly. It just happened. He was 11 years old, training with adults -- and they were learning from him.

"In a way, I've always felt older," said Despatie, standing not far from where he will dive at the Games. "I used to train with people twice my age. And, you know, sometimes there was no time to be a kid. All the people around me were older. If I acted like a kid, it wouldn't have been appropriate.

"And, you know, I fit in. I was facing events that weren't for 12- and 13-year-olds, but once you start competing it isn't about age. Once you get here, it's about what you're able to do and what your capabilities are."

On a Canadian team desperately searching for stars, any stars, the possibilities for Despatie are somewhat startling. He is the defending world champion in platform diving. He is considered a serious medal contender in springboard diving. He will compete in the men's synchronized platform event.

One medal? Two medals? Three medals? He isn't about to play the counting game.

"I don't want to get into those sorts of answers," he said. "I have to do what I have to do.

"For the past year and a half it has been proven that I am a contender to be in the top three. I can't deny that.

"You do your best and hope for the best. It would be bad sportsmanship to hope for (fellow divers) to miss. If I'm going to be the best, I want to be the best when everybody is at their best."

His version of the Ric Flair mantra. To be the best, you've got to beat the best. Words not often heard from Canadian athletes. This isn't about finishing seventh and being satisfied with your morning swim. And unlike so many Canadians of Olympics past, he speaks proudly, acting neither frazzled by the expectations nor typically has he chosen to make himself invisible.

"Why hide?" Despatie said. "I love my sport and want people to know about it. I like the attention and I respect it.

"At home (in Laval, Que.) before leaving, everyone kept coming up to me and wishing me good luck and saying 'Bring back a medal.' To me, that's very nice. I take it when it comes and then I turn around and get my focus back. I go back to being who I am."

The world's oldest 19-year-old who not only understands the expectations but welcomes them. He wants nothing more than to perform on the big stage. If he isn't one already, he is clamouring to be a star.

"As far as I'm concerned, Alexandre is already a superstar for me and for Canada," Larouche said. "It doesn't really matter what he accomplishes here. He is already accomplished -- he's a great guy, a great human being, a great athlete, a great example. What more can you ask for?"

A couple of medals would be nice.


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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