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Myra Lee takes a dive during a training session on April 12, 2017.

TRAINING DAY

Not afraid to take the plunge

Away from the cameras and fans, athletes chase greatness in the anonymity of a practice arena. In a four-part series, starting with platform diver Myra Lee, we look at Singapore athletes' quiet commitment to their craft as they grind away in a bid to become better.

To watch Myra Lee, 23, at practice is to appreciate the fearsome beauty of platform diving. She constructs two-second ballets in mid-air and yet she’s scared to dive. She spends her life in flight but is worried about getting hurt. “Terrifying,” she says with a smile about her craft. And yet 50, or 60, or even 70 times a day, the same thing happens: She swallows her fear and leaps elegantly into the abyss from 10m. It’s a pity there are marks in diving for technique and flair but none for courage.

 

Singaporean diver Myra Lee in mid-air during a practice dive.
ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

Diving glistens with grace and yet it’s the second cousin of boxing. Before Lee starts to dive at the OCBC Aquatic Centre, she tapes her wrists because this is also a contact sport where body meets water with violence. When she falls from 10m she will hit the water at roughly 50kmh and if her body isn’t perfectly aligned, if she’s rotating too slowly, if she doesn’t break the water cleanly, there will be consequences.

Her back, shoulder, wrists, elbows will hurt. Her legs, calves, thighs, face may have bruises. Welcome to the painful planet of this two-time medallist at the SEA Games. Welcome to practice day. This is six-times-a-week masochism, this is four hours of sweating for a dream with not a fan or camera in sight.

Passion is what we associate with Centre Courts and Olympic arenas, but in truth it is found here. These practice pools and training fields are the great, unseen factory floors of sport where talent is tested, skill is forged and ambition is chased in anonymity. Out here we find the integrity of labour, where the athlete isn’t thinking medal or nation or anything more profound than just this:

Improve, dammit.

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Divers use a shammy to dry their bodies so that their hands don't slip off their knees during rotation. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

Improvement means digging till you excavate all your talent. Improvement makes Lee “happy” because it is excruciating. Just trying to keep her eyes open longer during her dive can take months to master. But improvement is why she fights fear and pushes through tiredness.

Today, for instance, she – who is doing a double major in political science and corporate communications – studied till 2.30am, slept from 3.15am to 7am, got to class by 8am, finished at 3.15pm and now is at training at 4pm. “Some days I get so tired my hands just shake at the end of practice.” Some days, like today, she won’t dive from the 10m board but from 5m. But almost all days she dives. Because you can’t chase dreams on your days off.

 

Singaporean diver Myra Lee in mid-air during a practice dive.
ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

In a quiet, cool room at the Sports Hub, the Cirque du Soleil is holding tryouts.

Or so it seems. In this hall filled with harnesses, mats, four springboards and two trampolines, people stand on their heads, somersault and spin. This is a society of the supple, whose rotating bodies are so perfectly angled, at least to the untrained eye, that you think they bring set squares to work.

The air-conditioning hums, the boards flex and clatter, the coach watches. His name is Wan Jun and in English it probably translates to never-happy. He is charming, focused, tough, pushy and Lee smiles and says: “He says I won’t make a good dancer because I don’t have a good sense of rhythm.”

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Coach Wan Jun keeps a watchful eye on Lee's technique during her aerial ballet. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

Right now she is attached to a harness and standing on a trampoline as she practises a new dive, a forward 31/2-somersault in pike position which requires a certain technical polish before she can bring it to water. The gift of dry land is that it allows for high-volume training: For every dive in the pool you can do 10 repetitions here.

 

In this room, life is turned on its head. Ordinary folk bend down and touch their toes; Lee is extraordinary for she can touch her toes in mid-air while upside down in pike position. Standing on a box, weights on her ankles, she practises this 10 times: rising high, touching toes, and falling backwards onto the mat.

Every Lee dive is a piece of condensed beauty: run-up, take-off, somersault, entry, all squeezed into two seconds. Think of it as an exquisite composition, like a series of connected notes that she is now individually polishing. So 20 times she shines her back somersault. Then she works on her run-up.

The run-up is a short but complex routine involving a step, half-step, half-skip, skip, jump and then, in the gym, a front somersault. She needs rhythm, grace, balance, explosiveness but her body is tense. “Run slower,” coach Wan shouts. She tries, again and again and again, hammering her body into the mat, challenging herself to be better.

It is not the repetitions which are exhausting, but the intensity they come wrapped in. Later she’ll say: “The hardest thing is focus. It’s a lot of concentration. Especially from the 10m because the more terrified you are the more you have to focus. Sometimes I get so tired I have a headache.” But a headache is never an excuse not to practise.

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ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

"Oh no, oh no, oh no."

Sometimes the instant she leaves the board Lee knows: the dive is all wrong. Maybe she was just leaning too far forward but the result isn’t going to be pretty. In effect she’s a human plane: There’s a lot hanging on a good take-off.

Right now it’s 5.30pm and she’s at the pool, standing on the edge of a board, back to the water, on her toes, a statue about to come to life. Her only aid is a shammy, a cloth to dry her body so her hands don’t slip off her knees while rotating. Some days she uses an anti-slip cream which she finally found at a pole dancing club. Diving has taken her to strange places.

Far below her the pool waits. Small sprays of water ensure the surface of the pool is always moving because if it is flat and still it affects a diver’s depth perception and also reflects the lights. This matters because as divers fall, they pick a spot in the water as they rotate which tells them how fast they are falling and how close the water is. If there is a reflection, it can be confusing.

Lee extends her arms sideways, bends her knees, launches, rises almost vertically, before gravity grabs her. “The hardest thing is that to do a skill well you have to be precise. The position of your hands, the arching of your back, your chest not sticking out. It seems effortless but it takes a lot of time, effort, scoldings and frustration to master it.”

At her best she can tell a “really, really good entry” by two things: sound and feeling. She can hear a “whoosh” under the water and she can feel what she calls “a good pain” as her clasped palms break the water. Maybe, immersed in liquid, she smiles. Then she breaks the surface and coach Wan is there. Pointing out a mistake.

After two hours of diving there is more work on land. More sit-ups. More planking. One day she wants to get to the Olympics and this is the only known route. Only through labour can you find art.

When she returns from water to land, Lee briefly pauses to put on her earrings. She never practises with them on because too many of them, having loosened and fallen off during a dive, lie at the bottom of the water. If anything symbolises who she is, then perhaps it is these lost earrings. In the pool, this poised, scared, determined woman, who is trying to fall to greatness, leaves so much of herself behind.

 

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ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG