No pain, no gain: The brutal nature of Olympic diving

Hidden behind the spectacular twists and turns in Olympic diving events are the myriad injuries the athletes suffer on a regular basis. Most rarely consider diving the contact sport it is.

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Sports

July 30, 2021 - 1:10 PM

A member of Japan men's synchronized 3m springboard makes a dive in the final at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics Monday. Photo by Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times / TNS

TOKYO — Olympic divers look at the pool a little differently than the rest of us. They see angles and molecular attractions and cohesive forces. They recognize the unfortunate circumstances that can make entering the water feel like “slamming into the floor.”

This is the science of their sport. A human body plummeting from a 10-meter platform, head-first, reaching speeds of approximately 32 miles an hour. The sudden jolt from water’s relatively high surface tension of 72 millinewtons per meter.

“People have no idea,” says Kassidy Cook, a veteran of the U.S. national team and past Olympian. “When you hit the water, it’s as hard as concrete for a split-second before you break through.”

So, as the diving competition proceeds at the Summer Games over the next week, the competitors will look graceful on television, their flips and spins both dazzling and elegant. But know that many of them have long histories of pain.

Broken wrists and dislocated shoulders. Twisted necks and elbows and ruptured eardrums. Concussions are relatively common, as are pulmonary contusions in which the force of impact bruises the lungs.

Each dive sends shock waves through muscle, ligament and bone. The constant pounding is not unlike being an offensive lineman in the NFL.

“This is a contact sport,” says John Locke, the lead U.S. diving team doctor. “It puts a lot of negative forces on your body that you have to overcome to be an Olympian.”

Competing in Tokyo with a screw in his surgically repaired wrist, patellar tendinitis in both knees and lower back issues, U.S. team member Brandon Loschiavo explains: “Diving beats you up.”

The competition in Tokyo continues this week with the women’s 3-meter springboard. Most of the attention will focus on what we can see, divers launching themselves upward and outward from the platform or board, generating a forward velocity that carries them in a gradual arc toward the water.

The all-important rotation must begin immediately if they are to execute four or more flips in just 1 1/2 seconds of air time. All the way down, they must be aware of their body position in space while keeping an eye on the fast-approaching water in hopes of entering as straight as possible.

The other part — the pain — begins before they even get wet.

The 10-meter event, the equivalent of jumping off a three-story building, can cause repetitive strain injuries from repeatedly pushing off a concrete platform. Three-meter divers must deal with the whip-like pushback of the springboard.

“Knee-buckle is one of the worst things that can happen,” says Krysta Palmer, who finished eighth with Alison Gibson in the 3-meter synchronized event. “That happened to me a lot when I started. One of those times I tore my ACL” knee ligament.

Though springboard divers start from a lower height, they make up much of that difference when vaulting airborne from the board, so their speed at impact is not much less.

All divers must ultimately deal with the fact that molecules along the surface of the water cohere more strongly than those below. This resistance varies slightly with each pool, influenced by temperature, filtering and draining.

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