By Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken
Although futbol or, as the Americans say, soccer, is the most popular sport in Mexico, every four years people around the country gather in front of TVs to cheer on another sports team, their Olympic diving team. Mexican athletes have participated in the Olympics in all games since those hosted by Paris in 1924. And they have won at least one medal in all summer games since 1932 in the Los Angeles Olympics. The Mexican athletes most likely to medal are the members of the diving team. Over all Olympic Summer Games, the Mexico diving teams have won 14 medals. The only Mexican Olympians who have come close to that are Mexican boxers, who have taken home a total of 13 medals.
If you know about the professional Mexican cliff divers in Acapulco and the high-platform diving into cenotes that takes place in the State of Quintana Roo, you might surmise that Mexicans have been diving for centuries and that the Olympic divers are following an ancient tradition. However, it’s not so. Diving off the cliffs in Acapulco began in the 1930s, and cenote diving began even more recently and was started by foreigners. Moreover, Mexican high diving involves plunges of 30 or more meters, but the highest platform in the Olympics competitions is only 10 meters above the water.
Originally, when diving was first introduced at the Olympics in 1904, only men could compete and there were just two types of dives: a simple dive off a 10-meter platform and a plunge for underwater distance. Mexican divers would have had a distinct advantage in the latter event since traditional, centuries-old diving in Mexico involved deep underwater diving for pearls. However, Mexico did not send athletes to the 1904 Olympics and by the time the 1924 Paris Olympics arrived, the plunge for distance had disappeared forever from the diving competitions.
Modern Olympic diving teams, both men’s and women’s teams, compete in four types of events: individual and synchronized dives from the 10-meter platform and individual and synchronized dives from the 3-meter springboard. These athletes are trained more as aerial gymnasts than as water athletes and spend most of their practice time on dry land. In addition to starting a dive facing the water or facing away from the water, a standard start position is from a hand stand, and the duration and position of the hand stand is judged as an important part of the overall score.
Once airborne, divers are judged on the height they initially achieve, their proximity to the springboard or platform (close but not dangerously close), the number and difficulty of twists and somersaults they perform and the position of their body, arms and legs during these maneuvers, and finally their ability to enter the water with their legs perfectly perpendicular to the surface with essentially no splash. Sounds easy, right? Now imagine the same moves being performed in tandem during the synchronized platform and springboard events.
Given the short duration of time they are actually in the air (less than 2 seconds for the 10-meter dive), and the increasing complexity and difficulty of dives they perform, these athletes provide a challenge to physicists as well as thrilling their audience. Many scientific papers have been written about the underlying dynamics of complex dives. For example, the divers must put exactly the desired amount of spin into their body at the moment they leave the platform, and then maneuver so that they are not rotating so fast as they enter the water. Understanding physics helps coaches to make seemingly minor adjustments in their divers’ positions that allow them to accomplish dives of substantially greater difficulty. Since 1948 the diving coaches in Mexico seem to have gotten the physics down pat.
Of course, it helps the coaches to have a super athlete like Joaquín Capilla Peréz. Capilla won more Olympic medals than any other person from Mexico. Born in Mexico City in 1928, he first competed in the 1948 London games and took home the bronze medal for the platform dive. He was once again on the podium for his platform diving in Helsinki in 1952 – but this time for the silver medal. And he capped off his career in 1956 in Melbourne with two medals; the bronze for the springboard and for the platform – the gold!
Four years after Capilla won the springboard bronze, another Mexico City native, 19-year-old Juan Botella Medina, duplicated this accomplishment at the 1960 games in Rome, also taking home the bronze. Another member of the Mexico dive team, Álvaro Gaxiola Robles, was hot on Botella’s heels, taking fourth place – but no medal. Gaxiola also did not medal in 1964 – but when competing in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, with over 4000 people watching and the hometowners cheering him on, Gaxiola completed his third Olympic games with a silver medal for the platform dive hanging around his neck.
Mexico’s women’s diving team began to demonstrate its prowess at a much later date than the men’s. Although in 1968 the track and field athlete, Norma Enriqueta Basilio, was the first woman ever to light the Olympic Cauldron, it wasn’t until 2008 that the women’s team medaled. That year, in Beijing, Paola Espinosa Sánchez from La Paz, South Baja California, and Tatiana Ortiz Galicia, another Mexico City native, took home bronze medals for the synchronized platform event. This was a major victory, since the Chinese women’s team virtually dominated this event.
Espinosa went on to the London Games in 2012 with a new partner from Guadalajara, Alejandra Orozco Loza, and together they won the silver medal for their synchronized platform dives. At the same games, Laura Sánchez Soto won the bronze from the 3-meter springboard. This was Laura’s first medal at her third Olympic participation and the first time a member of the Mexico women’s dive team won a medal at an individual event. The Mexican divers were on fire in London; Iván García Navarro and Germán Sánchez Sánchez also took home silver medals for their men’s synchronized platform dives. Four years later, in the Rio Olympics, Sánchez added to his medal collection by winning the silver in the individual men’s platform event.
Although the 2016 Olympic diving teams did not match the performances of the 2012 teams, in the World Cup event held in Rio in which divers qualified for the Olympics, the divers from Mexico performed so successfully that they were invited by President Peña Nieto to a special reception in their honor. At the reception the President commented: “It is a triumph for you personally, it is a triumph for the team and it is a source of great pride for Mexico.”
We’re looking forward to cheering on Mexico’s Olympic diving team in 2020 in Tokyo.