SINGAPORE: National diver Mark Lee had put off retiring from the sport for a final shot at the world’s biggest stage - eating right, training right, doing all the right things.
Then earlier this month, he was hit by news that the FINA Diving World Cup in Japan would not take place. It serves as a qualifying competition for the Tokyo Olympics.
“You can imagine, (after) one whole year of extending just to compete at the Olympics ... and when I received that message, (I thought) ‘what the hell?’” said the 26-year-old on Saturday (Apr 17).
At the time, there was no certainty if the event would be cancelled or merely postponed, as the COVID-19 situation in Japan appeared to be worsening.
“There was all kinds of speculation. Some people were saying, if they cancel it, then they'll just take the scores from world championships two years ago … then my one year of extension from last year would have been for nothing,” recalled Lee.
“Other people were saying maybe the Olympics Committee will say that they would cancel this World Cup (so) every nation would get two spots."
The sense of disappointment was not felt by Lee alone. A number of Team Singapore divers had also been eyeing the competition, which was slated to be held from Apr 16 to 23.
“I was woken up ... in the morning by my mum. And then she told me, maybe because I was tired and stuff, I actually started crying. Because the opportunity was just gone, I didn’t even have a shot at trying,” recalled diver Ashlee Tan.
“But when I read the news, they're trying to find (an) alternate location and timing. So at the back of my mind, to me it isn’t cancelled, it is just postponed indefinitely.”
THE LAST SHOT
Organisers eventually announced that the FINA Diving World Cup would still be held in Tokyo, but two weeks later than originally planned.
It is now scheduled for May 1 to 6, with Singapore sending seven divers to completed. Apart from Lee and Tan, the others are Jonathan Chan, Max Lee, Freida Lim, Fong Kay Yian and Lee's twin brother Timothy.
Despite the earlier uncertainty, the divers tried to press on.
“It's very hard to train because then I don't have a goal to work towards,” said Lee.
“It's easier for me at least to work towards something when I know that there's something there. So when they said that it was cancelled and (there was) no replacement date, that totally threw me off.”
Lee recalled having the FINA page open on his Internet browser and constantly refreshing the page for updates.
“We're just waiting, waiting for news - that was tough,” he said.
“It was cancelled and then it became TBC (to be confirmed), when I saw that, I was like: ‘Hey, maybe there is a possibility.’”
For Tan, this provided her with an opportunity to work on her dives as she was struggling with one in particular.
“At the beginning, it was a bit tough, because you don't have a certain timed goal to look towards. It's like you don't really know when this is going to be - how do I chase after something that's not there?” she said.
“But I had problems in one dive. So for me ... this is a time that I've been given to just do my best and work on fixing this dive.”
The Singapore contingent will leave for Japan on Apr 26.
“That past year has been pretty crazy but (competing at the) Olympics is something that I've always wanted ... going to the World Cup, I’m going to do my best,” said Lee, who will be competing in the Men’s 3m springboard event.
“You miss 100 per cent of the shots you don't take, so for me this is really the last shot, giving it everything.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has been a reminder of how the divers have been “fortunate” to have been able to compete around the world, said Tan.
“Now that the competitions are gone, we realise we really have been very fortunate over the past few years,” she added.
A FINAL LEAP OF FAITH
The success of compatriot Jonathan Chan has also been a morale booster, said the divers.
Chan became the first Singaporean diver to ever qualify for an Olympics after he won the Men's 10m Platform final at the Asian Diving Cup in Kuala Lumpur in September 2019.
He beat China's Wang Zewei and North Korea's Ri Kwon Hyok to claim the gold medal at the Bukit Jalil National Aquatic Centre in Malaysia, scoring an overall total of 407.90.
Chan was also the first Singaporean to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics.
“For sure, Jon definitely made history when he qualified for the Olympic Games and for the rest of us who are trying to qualify, this is like a big step to show us that it is possible … That in itself is enough to give us a bit of confidence,” said Lee.
Tan added: “It really brought forth the thought that anything can happen, even the most unlikely thing can happen. As long as you try, there will always be a certain chance that it might happen. But if you don’t try, you know it won’t happen."
Following Chan's breakthrough, the goal for the upcoming meet will be for one or two more divers to make the cut for the Olympics, said national diving head coach Li Peng.
"From 2019 SEA Games until now, we've had nearly 15 months, no international competitions. It was quite boring but I think its good for our divers because we have plenty of time to prepare for this competition," he said at a press conference on Saturday.
And so next month, six dives will stand between Singapore’s divers and the Olympic Games.
It is time for a final leap of faith.