Kiwi diving judge Simon Latimer has just finished up a stint at the 2012 London Olympics, where the scores he gave contributed to who won gold, silver and bronze. A trip to the Olympics is a dream realised for the boy from Dunedin, who’s spent his fair share of time in the pool himself.
Growing up, Simon had a flair for sports. He dabbled in cricket and basketball, but stuck with athletics and gymnastics, thanks to his good coordination – and like many other kids, he loved trampolines. After a few years training as a gymnast, Simon switched over to the sport that would change his life: diving.
“I was on the NZ Youth Team for gymnastics and then transferred to diving because I liked the somersaulting part so much. I was picked out for diving after playing on the trampolines at the pool in Dunedin.
“A lot of divers come from gymnastics like I did. Others just start it out as their first sport. I think there is an advantage to being a gymnast first because you have already developed the flexibility and aerial orientation. However, if you are introduced to diving young enough, athletes can pick up all the necessary skills without a gymnastics background.”
Despite a few hiccups in the first few sessions caused by transferring from landing on his feet to landing on his head, Simon took to diving and soon began to look up to top divers such as out gay Greg Louganis, who won four gold medals at the 1984 and 1988 Olympics.
Simon too was on a rise – he competed at the World Championships of diving in 1995 and 1999 and finished in the top 20. Simon also broke nine New Zealand records in diving and became the NZ men’s champion for the first time when he was just 13.
Just after the new millennium, Simon noticed pain in his back, which soon showed itself to be a small stress fracture. He took six months off to repair, but upon return found that the issue “never really resolved itself”.
“Diving is one of those sports which uses your whole body and your back is very central to everything you do, so it was difficult to get around the problem,” he says. “I was offered spinal fusion surgery but didn’t want to have an operation at such a young age.”
Simon does have fond memories of his last competition, however – before he retired in 2002, he beat gay Australian diver Michael Mitcham, who won gold in 2008 at the Beijing Olympics. He returned to diving briefly in 2006 to compete at the World Outgames in Montreal and won three golds.
After retiring from diving, Simon decided he wanted to stay involved in the sport and decided to dedicate himself to judging. He judged his first international competition in 2008 and has never looked back.
“I decided to judge because I like the fact you can make your own decision without consulting others,” Simon says. “You are completely accountable for your assessment of a dive. I tried coaching a few times but I do not have the patience for it.”
Simon says he has lost the urge to train hard and repeat dives over and over and says that while he enjoys going to the odd diving session, we won’t see him back in the pool any time soon.
“Some of the judges at the Olympics joked with me that since I am only 30, I could make a comeback for the next Olympics as an athlete and be the first person to go from judge to diver, rather than diver to judge. I had to assure them that there was no chance of that happening!”
At just 30, Simon was the youngest of the seven judges at the Games. Initially rattled by nerves and a nightmare where he gave a dive 9.0 while every other judged dished out 2.0s, he settled into the work and focused on the large-scale event like it was any other, smaller meet.
“It was great to get good feedback on my judging after the events and fun to be part of such a huge sporting event,” he says.
Talking through his process of judging, Simon says a perfect dive is much easier to judge than a less-than-perfect dive. A perfect dive – awarded 10 points – is visible on sight to the Olympics judges, whereas dives worth less than perfect require a lot of focus from the judging panel.
“Once you see something that is deficient with a dive you really need to focus hard, because unlike the TV commentators, we are not able to see a replay of the dive and have to judge our first impression. Usually I do not panic if something goes wrong, as I have seen so many different disaster scenarios!
“The perfect dive is the easiest to judge as you know almost immediately – you get a great feeling that there was nothing wrong with what you saw and know instantly what to give. It feels great to award 10 points, even if the first time I ever did it I was panicked that nobody else would award the same.”
Simon was also one of the seven judges to award German diver Stephan Feck 0.0 after he lost grip on one of his legs during the 3m springboard.
“Diving is one of those events where if something goes wrong it is bound to make the highlights reel,” says Simon. “I felt sorry for the diver as it probably ruined his whole Olympic experience. However, giving zero points for the dive was the correct thing to do as he essentially slipped off the springboard and only completed 2.5 somersaults rather than 3.5 somersaults. To give any points at all in that situation would be like awarding a try in rugby when the ball was five metres short of the line.”
Looking to the future, Simon says that although diving is not a major sport in New Zealand, it could be.
“We have recently recruited some talented coaches from overseas and the program seems to have some good junior athletes coming through. We will have some divers at the Youth World Championships in Australia this coming October.
“It is hard to be an elite diver here in NZ, as there is not all the support afforded to other sports.”
He also has dreams for the future of GLBT athletes in sport and hopes to see more people from more sports coming out.
“I think young GLBT athletes are growing up in a time where it is much easier to be yourself,” he says. “Society is changing its views and sport is slowly getting there too. I notice the majority of those who come out in sport do so in individual sports rather than team sports, but I hope one day we will have cricket players, soccer players and rugby players who are comfortable to do the same.”
| Hannah JV