By Mark Etheridge
Sportswise Julia Vincent spends most of her time heading headfirst into a diving pool.
But emotionally she’s on a high right now and holding her head up sky high after news of the three-metre springboard diver’s inclusion on Team South Africa for the Rio Olympics later this year. That is after she met both international and national qualification criteria.
Based at South Carolina University for the last two years, she’s coached by Todd Sherritt after initially being guided by Johannesburg coach Dom Philippopulous at Kingsmead College.
Securing her slot in Rio was a two-part process. She tells Road to Rio 2016: ‘Firstly, I had to place in the Top 34 at an international Olympic qualifying meet to get a spot for South Africa and then to keep the spot I had won I had to place first at South African Nationals (Olympic Trials).
‘In February, I competed at the Diving World Cup, which was held in Rio de Janeiro. I finished 28th on the 3m springboard and was put on the waiting list for the Olympics. On 11 April, the day before I competed at Olympic trials we found out that finishing 28th at World Cup was good enough to secure South Africa with a spot for the Olympics.
‘This news alone was exciting because regardless of who the spot would go to, South Africa was going to have a diver at the Olympics this year and there hasn’t been a South African diver at the Olympics in eight years. I obviously felt more pressure now going into the meet but I moved out of an emotional state of mind, and more into a mechanical and technical state of mind. Coach Todd, and I had been working on this for a few weeks and I knew that if I wanted to make the Olympics, this is what I needed to do. After my final dive, the only thing I could think of was ‘I hope I have done enough’. I had a decent list of dives, although honestly they all could have been better and I missed my second to last dive but I finished strong with my best dive of the meet.
‘When I realised I had won I ran over to my mom and she was, of course, already crying because she had made the same realisation I had. It was a great feeling, knowing that everything I had ever worked for and everything that I dreamed about was becoming a reality in that moment with my friends, family and the people I love surrounding me. It’s something I’ll never forget.’
They say every victory has its price though and for Vincent there was tinge of sadness. ‘I had to go up against two of my incredibly talented friends, Micaela Bouter and Nicole Gillis, who were also fighting for the Olympic spot.
‘This is the first time that I’ll be competing for my country without them, which is what made that moment so bittersweet.
A fascinating twist to Vincent’s burgeoning sporting career is that had her mom had her way Julia would have been on track for Rio in a completely different code.
As Philippopulous explained to Road to Rio 2016: ‘Julia arrived at Kingsmead College in Grade Eight and was a budding athlete, her mother’s dream was for her to compete at the Olympics in the 800m and even at that stage she was plotting Julia’s times against Caster Semenya’s achievements.
‘She tried a few diving sessions in term one, and showed great potential, but her mother wasn’t really happy for her to dive, so it was only in the third term that she started diving a little more seriously. The diving bug bit, and she progressed as a diver, although her mother was still fighting for her to become an athlete. Fortunately her athletics coach was also a teacher at Kingsmead (Mrs Koekemoer) and we tried to balance her training so that she could achieve in both sports. She also played hockey throughout her high school and was a member of the first team.
‘In 2010 Julia achieved the criteria and was selected to represent South Africa as a junior at the FINA World Junior Diving Championships in Tucson, Arizona, where I think the dream was born. While still running and doing our school proud with her amazing 800 m times, Julia was now focusing on diving…. we still needed to get her mother to buy into the fact that she was a diver not an athlete.’
Vincent gives her first coach due credit: ‘Dom was the first person to see potential in me and see a future in my diving career, and for that I will always be grateful. I continued to dive for my club, Rippers Diving Club throughout high school.’
She says the diving bond runs deep. ‘My teammates became my family and to this day we keep in constant contact and are incredibly supportive of each other, even 8000 miles apart. I was also lucky to be coached by someone so passionate about the sport.’
Now she combines Philippopulous’s early information with new information from Sherritt, something that’s constantly evolving. ‘He and I work very well together; we have a mutual understanding of each other’s goals and aspirations, which is what makes it so easy to be coached by him. He was the perfect addition to my diving career and I’m so grateful to work with such a talented coach
The move west to South Carolina, where she’s studying Public Health, was a daunting one for young Vincent. ‘Leaving my home, team, coach, comfort zone and basically my life as I knew it was the biggest decision I’ve made in my short life thus far but there’s never been a day go by when I don’t feel grateful for where I am and for the people with whom I have the privilege of surrounding myself with.’
Like any Olympic code athlete, qualifying for the Games has been her ultimate goal. ‘It’s the reason I went into the pool every day with such motivation… I knew what I wanted out of this sport so for the Olympics to be a reality now means more than anyone can imagine. It’s amazing knowing that the sacrifices I’ve made have all be worth it and more importantly I feel blessed to have been given this gift to serve the Lord in the best way I can.’
As for the reality of Rio and what her expectations are, she says: ‘Even though this is my first Olympics, I always have certain expectations of myself whenever I compete. The main goal for the Olympics would be to make the semi-final but if I have a good meet and compete my dives the way that Todd wants me to compete, I wont be upset if I don’t.
‘Todd always gives me certain objectives going into each dive and executing those objectives will be my main focus.
‘I also want to be able to soak up the experience and have as much fun as I can; this is a once in a lifetime experience therefore I plan on embracing every day as it comes.’
It seems that taking the plunge and switching sporting tracks was the perfect choice for Vincent!
Picture of Vincent in front of the Rio 2016 banner courtesy of Dom Philippopulous