Diving: The New Sport for Wunderkinds

Now that gymnastics bars competitors under 16, diving, where competitors can be as young as 14, is where the youngest stars, like Carolina Mendoza, just 15 years old, are to be found

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Tomas Munita for TIME

Mexican diver Carolina Mendoza trains at CNAR (Centro Nacional de Alto Rendimiento) in Mexico City.

In Mexico, a girl’s 15th birthday—el quince—can be the most important milestone of her young life, a coming-out celebration as special as graduations and weddings. But when Carolina Mendoza turned 15 in April, she wasn’t about to trade her swimsuit for a taffeta gown. In February, at age 14, Mendoza qualified for the London Olympics in women’s 10-m platform diving, becoming one of the youngest Mexicans ever to secure a trip to an Olympiad. No debutante ball was going to distract her from training for her sport’s most coveted prize. “Right now,” she told Time at the sleek national sports center in Mexico City, “I’m not interested in parties.”

Women’s gymnastics used to be the Olympic arena where the youngest seemed the ablest. Romania’s Nadia ­Comaneci ruled the 1976 Games at 14. But the minimum age for that sport was raised to 16 in 1997. Diving, for which the age limit is still 14 for 10-m platform, is the new kinder-kingdom in Olympic sport. In 2008 the women’s 10-m gold medal went to a 15-year-old, China’s Chen Ruolin, while the men’s competition featured 14-year-old British sensation Tom Daley, who won 10-m gold at the European Championships at 13. (He was eligible because he turned 14 by year’s end.)

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All this youth in a sport that demands maximum focus at 40 m.p.h. over 1.5 seconds, during gyrations that would put most people in neck braces. “Consider all the iPods and texting—a 15-year-old’s mind is like a wandering gypsy,” says JoAnn Dahlkoetter, a clinical psychologist who works with young Olympic athletes. Then, she says, add all the pressures a 15-year-old faces that a 25-year-old doesn’t: pleasing parents, attending school, hiring your first agent before you’ve had your first date. “Young divers at this level have a unique ability to get into the zone very quickly.” That’s Mendoza, says her trainer, Jorge Carreón: “She is extremely focused. She has all the physical qualities—elasticity, flexibility—but most of all she has no fear. She concentrates in a way that I seldom see in one so young.”

Not even a serious accident in 2010 could keep Mendoza off the platform. Her head struck her training trampoline so hard that it left a 15-inch gash on her face and an exposed nose fracture. A few weeks after an operation, she was competing again. Mendoza finished fifth in the 10-m event at this year’s world championships (Chen, now 19, was first) and has a good shot at bringing home Mexico’s first individual Olympic medal for women’s diving. “I am not scared at all, not even after my accident,” she says. “When I am on the platform, I hear nothing, see nothing but the water.”

(MORE: Taking a Dive: Is Great British Hope Tom Daley Set for an Unsuccessful Olympic Games?)

Diving can be like flying a stunt plane blind, without dashboard instruments to guide you. It demands a keen sense of kinesthetics, “the ability to feel what your body is doing in the air even when you can’t see,” says Dahlkoetter. Younger divers may have an advantage in that. Aside from weighing less—one reason pubescent female gymnasts do so well—“they often do have less fear,” Dahlkoetter says. “More of a daredevil curiosity.” Ironically, Carreón, whose students usually begin training with him at the tender age of 5 or 6, thought Mendoza too old when she showed up at the national sports center at age 11 wanting to try a new sport. Mendoza seemed ambivalent herself. “My only wish then was to become an acrobat and perform with the Cirque du Soleil,” she says. Although Mendoza had never dived before, Carreón says it took no more than 15 minutes of watching her to change his mind.

A diver has to be both fish and bird, and much of Mendoza’s preternatural ability stemmed from her experience in both swimming and gymnastics. When Mendoza discovered she could combine the two in diving, she was hooked. Mendoza, who learned to walk at 9 months and to swim at age 2, has DNA as well as drive going for her. Her parents are accomplished athletes—her mother Nadia was a Mexican national track-and-field champion in the 110-m hurdles—and her uncle was an Olympic cyclist at the 1968 Mexico City Games. Which may be why Carola, as her friends and family call her, seems as comfortable living and attending school at the capital’s sports complex, known as the National High-Performance Center (CNAR), as she is training there.

(PHOTOS: A Young Olympian: Diver Carolina Mendoza’s Training Routines)

She’s also a well-adjusted kid, one of the CNAR’s most committed divers yet one of its most playful and ebullient teens, sporting a smile and a pert, mop-top haircut that seems straight out of an early Beatles photo. “I love what I do,” she says. “I would like a room of my own though,” she adds. “Right now I’m sharing with two other girls—they do table tennis.” The Olympic spotlight has a way of testing that kind of innocence.

Mendoza has five dives to perfect before the first round in London on August 8, including the grueling backward two-and-a-half somersault with one-and-a-half twists in the pike position, and her­ favorite—the Cirque du Soleil–esque backward three somersaults in the tuck position from a handstand on the platform. She’ll be up against some youthful competition too. Chen is again the 10-m favorite, followed by her Chinese teammate Hu Yadan, 16, who finished second at the world championships. As for that quince, Mendoza’s mother hopes the family can still host a party: “Not too big, when Carola has a little time.” But that could be a while. “I can easily go to three more Olympics,” Mendoza says. By then she’ll be 27—and perhaps putting off a wedding, rather than a debutante’s party.

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