By GARY LEMKE in Tokyo
Deep into our interview I suddenly hit a blank. Julia Vincent looked at me, waiting for me to ask another question. I looked at her. I’d lost my train of thought. Embarrassingly so.
“Does that ever happen to you?” I asked. “Oh absolutely!” she replied. “Sometimes I’ve forgotten which leg to start walking with on the board, I’ve got so nervous. But that’s part of the challenge isn’t it? We all have moments like that.”
Vincent is one of two divers representing TeamSA at the Tokyo Olympics, along with Micaela Bouter and this is her second Games appearance, having been part of Rio 2016. That however was then, this is now. If they say a week can be a long time in sport, imagine how long five years can be.
“I’m a completely different athlete to who I was back in 2016,” she says with an American accent that has been developed by the last six years in the US after settling in South Carolina in 2015.
“I was so grateful to be in Rio, but I know that I was lucky to be there. I had a great day in qualification and was able to get in. I suppose that’s the thing though, you have to perform on the day. A lot of other good people missed out. But going from 2016 to now I feel like I have so much more experience, which is something one would hope would be the case. Even if it doesn’t go the way I want, I know that with the growth that I’ve shown in the last few years, it’s hard to compare me now with me five years ago.”
A couple of times the near 27-year-old refers to feeling “as though she belongs” to be competing in the Olympics, where she’ll showcase her skills from the 3m board. “In 2016 I was a little star struck. The Olympics is unlike any other event you’ll find. The arena here at Tokyo 2020 is beautifully dressed and I’ve been soaking up the atmosphere. I’ve been able to talk to my friends from other countries and have been able to relax a lot more. In 2016 I didn’t know people, and it was nerve racking. Now, standing behind the board with all the others, I feel comfortable, that I’m meant to be there.”
The mental side of sport is something that Vincent understands – and relishes. “Diving challenges you in so many different ways, mentally and emotionally. When you’re on the board you tap into a certain mindset, ‘this is what I need to do’. I used to panic a lot and it’s taken a lot of training to get past that. Now, I’m at the point where I just move onto the next dive. It almost motivates me, knowing that I have another dive to do better.
“The nerves never go away. My goal is to handle the nerves better, It’s a tough mental sort, physically touch but I’m now at the point where I’m hoping I can step on the board and feel comfortable … that I belong. A huge part of diving is feeling that I belong. In 2016 that wasn’t the case, but it is now. I have good performances coming into these Games which was not the case in 2016. I’m hoping that the confidence will carry on and relax me, helping me to focus on the dive and stay calm mentality.”
So, is there a way to train yourself to stay calm when the world’s eyes are on you, the silence when you’re next on the board, the water 3m below you and you could literally hear a pin drop.
“A large part of my preparation is visualisation. I also use a lot of breathing techniques, try to slow my heart rate down. When I’m up there I visualise on the board.
In terms of sports, gymnastics is quite similar to skateboarding. You have a moment and have to make the most of it. You’re put on the spot. It can be nerve-racking. But I also train for the moment, for example turning off any music and trying to recreate it as silently as possible. You’ve got to try to embrace the nerves and embrace the silence. You can’t run away from the moment. Embrace it, it’s going to be there. Make the most of it.”
In training Vincent uses a lot of video to hone her skills. “I’m a very visual learner, so I like to watch myself dive and then slow it down, see if I could have done something differently. Obviously it helps to have resources. At home we have a lot of TVs. Here I will need to rely on what my coach is saying and using him as my eyes.
“When I’m standing outside of the pool I watch people who are very, very good and they almost never falter. I watch them and slow down their dive in my mind. That repetition embeds itself into the brain and hopefully the brain won’t know what’s my dive or what’s their dive. That’s just my technique – I don’t know if there’s any science to that!”
The answer to that is that Vincent is in Tokyo representing South Africa at the Olympics. Whatever she is doing is working and it’s great to have the 2021 version on board to show us how far she has come.