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Saturday, September 30, 2000

Despatie learns to handle perfection

 SYDNEY -- He tried so hard to be the perfect kid.

 People expected it, right? After all, he was The Phenom. The Can't-Miss Kid. A Canadian hero.

 And in his heart, he felt he had to live up to the hype.

 More than anything, Alexandre Despatie wanted perfect 10s in diving and in life.

 But the 15-year-old diver from Laval, Que., who qualified yesterday for the Olympic 10-metre men's final at the Sydney Aquatic Centre soon found out being perfect is a lot of pressure.

 "I can handle it," he told himself.

 At age 13, Despatie went to Malaysia and won Commonwealth Gold.

 The expectations exploded.

 Event organizers would call to make sure Alex was coming to their event. Just like Tiger Woods in golf, no dive meet was complete without him.

 People expected him to perform.

 He's Canada's diving boy-genius, they said excitedly. The kid who will bring Canada an Olympic medal before he got his driver's licence.

 "I can handle it," Alex repeated.

 He would do an interview or speak at a banquet, and blow people away with his charm and cool attitude.

 Did you hear him, they'd ask excitedly. So articulate, so polished, so grown up for such a little boy.

 The invitations to speak increased.

 "I can handle it," he told himself.

 But it was a lot for a teenaged kid to handle.

 He was going through puberty, his body was changing and he was training harder than ever for that first Olympics.

 He did not feel comfortable with himself anymore.

 His dives were off. He was feeling frustrated and lonely.

 And a few months before the biggest moment in his life, it all unravelled.

 "He would get mad at nothing," said his coach Michel Larouche. "He would find one little mistake in his technique, get really upset, and he wouldn't finish his dive. It made practice tough."

 Larouche was worried. With good reason.

 It took Larouche a lot of time and energy to convince Despatie everything would work out. That he didn't have to be perfect.

 About three weeks ago, the outbursts stopped.

 Even the kid wonders aloud about the strange calm he feels at these Olympics.

 "I'm more nervous when I'm competing at home in a local meet than at the Olympics," said Alex. "Here, I don't know the people in the stands, so I can just focus on the dive and not worry about anything."

 He proved his focus last night in the semifinals.

 He stood on the platform, about to perform his third dive of the night, a reverse from the pike position, when suddenly, a sound rang out like the starter's gun at a track meet.

 Only this is diving. It's supposed to be library quiet.

 A few months ago, who knows what Despatie would've done if he heard the noise?

 But this time, he finished the job and knocked off his best score of the night.

 This was the Olympics and all the kid wanted was to finish his dives.

 Everything truly was perfect.