Junior divers jump up, up and in

Scotland is on the look-out for children who have the gymnastic talent to make a big splash, writes Roddy Mackenzie

Steve Gladding has spent the past two years urging schoolchildren to take the plunge. As Scottish national diving coach and national development officer for the diving arm of Scottish Swimming, his remit is to ensure that children do more than dip their toes in the water.

So far, he has been reasonably successful, with 400 schoolchildren aged from five taking part in structured diving coaching each week throughout Scotland. But Mr Gladding, a former Great Britain international diver, does not want to stop there. Scotland lacks facilities and diving coaches but that has not deterred him. He is currently thinking out his next plan of attack to get more youngsters involved and he is looking at children as young as four as possible recruits.

"As soon as children are comfortable in the water, they are ready to learn the basics of diving," he says, while pointing out that for children between four and eight, 75 per cent of the initial coaching is done out of the water.

It is basic gymnastics the children are taught before they get the chance to dive. Such are the technical requirements, that it can take 10 to 12 years before a diver reaches his or her peak.

While the ideal is getting a child from an early age, it is not too late to teach the skills when they are older. Mr Gladding did not take up the sport until he was 10 and the current top women's diver, Monique McCarroll, started at 16, though she was an international gymnast for South Africa.

As a result of offering free lessons to primary children in Edinburgh, there are now 250 diving on a regular basis. There are facilities at Wester Hailes to achieve Scottish Swimming Awards at levels one to three but it is only at the Royal Commonwealth Pool, which has competition level boards, that grades four to six can be completed.

"In addition to the Edinburgh scheme, Scottish Swimming has similar projects in Ayr, Dundee and Aberdeen - each with about 40 children regularly attending - so there are nearly 400 children taking part in diving every week in Scotland," Mr Gladding says.

"Unfortunately there are no facilities in Glasgow, which is a source of frustration to me as there is a huge number of children which I cannot recruit there."

The next step is to go back to primary schools for talent identification and to seek out children who have the body shape to make a significant splash in the sport. He intends to visit schools in Edinburgh in early December to conduct reviews during games lessons.

Mr Gladding is aware that he is competing for the same children as gymnastics and is keen to encourage older children who have a grounding in that sport but are no longer competing to try diving. He is keen to emphasise that there is no intention of going after children who are happy to remain in gymnastics.

"What we're trying to encourage is that diving is fun. The children love it when they come to sessions," Mr Gladding says. "Any child from an early age wants to jump off a diving board and all we want to do is teach them the basics so they can do it safely.

"But most of our coaching is done out of the water for young children. Even then, there is a dearth of dry facilities in Edinburgh. I do not even have access to a trampoline, which makes my life fairly difficult."

One of Mr Gladding's star pupils is Jenny Sless, who attends Davidson's Mains Primary in Edinburgh. She is Scottish Junior Champion on all three boards - one metre, three metre and five metre high - and recently, at the age of 10, was third in an open competition for under-15s.

Jenny's mother, Mary, is one of 12 coaches in the Edinburgh area. She says:

"We have sessions most days and schools like Preston Street Primary and South Morningside Primary are sending pupils regularly."

Mr Gladding acknowledges that there are not enough coaches throughout Scotland to enable the scheme to reach its full potential but he is actively working on increasing the number.

He believes there is no shortage of children willing to attend diving classes if they are offered the chance. But there may be some hesitation from parents to send their children due to the perceived dangers. When American diver Greg Louganis struck his head on a diving board at an Olympic Games, the incident was graphically shown on television.

"It is a safe sport. People remember what happened to Louganis but it was sorted with a few stitches. I've seen worse injuries on a squash court," says Mr Gladding.

"Safety is our first concern and the coaching is very controlled and structured and totally within the children's limits."

The coach knows that patience is the key to producing divers who will go on to represent Scotland in future at Commonwealth Games and possibly Great Britain at Olympic Games. It is a long-term commitment from youngsters and those coming in at Primary 1 are unlikely to see the fruits of their labours until they are leaving secondary school.

"We are light years away from the likes of Australia in terms of facilities and coaches but we are still capable of producing divers who are able to compete at top international level and it will just take time. We have a good base to build on," he concludes.

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