Diver proud to be representing Jamaica
February 22, 2018
Acknowledging that diving for his birth country would be a long shot, Yona Knight-Wisdom knew that one of his parents wouldn’t be happy with his decision to represent another country.
Born in England to Trevor Wisdom and Grace Knight who migrated from Jamaica and Barbados respectively, he had the choice of competing for either Caribbean country because of heritage.
Picking Jamaica was easy based on the country’s sporting excellence.
Also, who wouldn’t want to be part of an Olympic team that includes eight-time gold medallist Usain Bolt, considered the greatest sprinter of all time, and Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, the first Caribbean woman to win an Olympic 100-metre gold medal?
“When you represent Jamaica, you stand out a bit more,” said the trailblazing athlete who, in 2016, made history by becoming the first male diver to represent the Caribbean at the Olympics. “That was appealing and meant something to me. Of course, mom was a little bit upset, but as long as I was happy with my choice and what I was doing, she was good with that.”
Competing in the three-metre springboard event at the Rio Olympics, Knight-Wisdom finished 14th with an overall score of 381.40.
Cao Yuan of China was the winner with a score of 547.60.
“I was disappointed by the result even though if anyone had suggested two years earlier that I would place 14th, I would have doubted them,” he said. “It was a phenomenal experience to be at the Olympics and I was so excited over the three weeks I was there. To be honest, I don’t think the significance of the occasion will really hit me until I retire from the sport.”
Knight-Wisdom said his Jamaican teammates, including Bolt and Asafa Powell, the world 100-metre record holder for three years, were very supportive.
“I met a few of the Jamaican athletes prior to going to Rio and I expressed to them how much it meant for me to represent Jamaica,” he said. “In the Games Village, I interacted with Usain and Asafa who were very encouraging with positive words of support. That meant so much coming from two athletes who I had watched so much over the years.”
Graduating from Leeds Beckett University with a sport & exercise science degree just a few weeks before heading to Rio, Knight-Wisdom was introduced to diving at age nine through a talent identification testing program.
“They put us through a gymnastics test which I did very well in,” he pointed out. “I was engaged from the very first session and I have not looked back. In school, I tried every sport, including track & field, rugby, soccer and cricket, but I wasn’t good at any of them and I didn’t enjoy doing them as much as I do with diving. Every day I went to the pool at school, I had fun and felt good in that environment.”
Representing Jamaica for the first time in 2012 at an international youth meet in Germany where he made the boys’ one-metre springboard final, Knight-Wisdom appeared at the World Aquatics championships the following year in Barcelona and the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, finishing fifth and 11th in the men’s one and three-metre springboard finals respectively.
He also made his first and only visit to Toronto three years ago for the Pan American Games where he was 10th in the three-metre final with a score of 380.00.
“I have been to Montreal and Gatineau for competitions on three occasions and I would have loved to spend more time than the five days I was in Toronto,” he said. “The first three days were spent training and the preliminary competition took place on the same day of the opening ceremony at the Rogers Centre where I got to see the CN Tower. I had a good view of the city from my room in the athletes' village, but that was about it. The day after the finals, I had to leave for the world championships in Russia.”
On the Air Transat flight out of Toronto, Knight-Wisdom was re-acquainted with a cousin who is a hostess with the airline.
“This lady served me a drink and I was like, ‘Hold on, what is going on here’,” he recounted. “It was very random. We had met just a few months ago in London while she was there for a stopover. Before that meeting, we had not seen each other in several years.”
Knight-Wisdom’s maternal uncle, Dr. Andy Knight, is a professor at the University of Alberta in Edmonton and a former director of the University of the West Indies Institute of International Relations.
“I am his favourite uncle and we are in touch a lot,” said Knight, a 2010 Harry Jerome Award winner. “When he was a little kid, he had so much energy and his passion was gymnastics and soccer. When he started to dive, he took to it like a fish to water. Of course, when he was in the process of making the decision of which country to represent, my sister and I made the case for Barbados. But Yona wanted to be on the same team with Usain Bolt and he got his wish. I try my best to encourage him along the way, but full credit must go to his parents for him turning out to be the balanced and thoughtful young man he has grown up to be.”
With a paucity of Blacks participating in the sport, Knight-Wisdom was surprised when he showed up for a competition in Montreal in 2009 and saw another diver of colour.
Jennifer Abel, whose father is a Haitian immigrant, surged onto the international scene three years earlier as a 14-year-old by securing a bronze medal in the three-metre springboard event at the world junior championships.
Since that time, the Canadian diver has accumulated four gold medals at the Commonwealth and Pan Am Games.
“I must admit that I was intimidated by her presence and scared to approach her the first time I saw her,” he said. “She was the one that approached me first at the 2014 Commonwealth Games and we have been cool ever since. We now communicate and talk about the sport.”
Last month, Knight-Wisdom won his first gold medal at an international diving meet.
Competing in the British Diving championships in Plymouth, he scored 392.40 in the one-metre final.
“Winning gold was significant because it gave me confidence in my ability and told me I could compete at the top level,” he said. “In diving, you don’t compete often, so it’s hard to gauge where you are and how well you are doing. You get experience through competition. That has been the best result of my career.”
The 22-year-old diver wrapped up a two-week training camp in Florida a few days ago. He has been training with the University of the Miami team at least once annually since 2014.
With the Commonwealth Games starting on Australia’s Gold Coast in early April, Knight-Wisdom said training outdoor was ideal.
“It was just the perfect environment because the pool at the Commonwealth Games is outdoor also,” he said. “Now I am back home in England, I will try to stay fit and healthy and get ready to leave for Australia a few weeks before the Games where I could work out with one of my previous coaches in Brisbane. I want to be the best I can at the Commonwealth Games and hopefully that will help me get on the podium.”
Standing 190 centimetres (about 6’2”) limits the kinds of dives he’s able to do. Divers over 5’10” will start spinning slowly which means they will be unable to fit in all the rotations in time before they hit the water.
Growing too tall also minimizes the divers he can try to pattern himself after.
Despite the obstacles, Knight-Wisdom has a few role models in the sport. They include Canadian Alexandre Despatie, the first and only diver to be a world champion in three different categories, and a 37-time national senior champion.
He retired from the sport five years ago.
“Alexandre made the sport look easy,” said Knight-Wisdom whose favourite movie is ‘Cool Runnings’. “He always seemed to be in control of everything he was doing which is a difficult thing to do in this sport because there are so many variations in every dive.”
Jamaican Betsy Sullivan-Sharp, who resides in Florida, was the first Caribbean diver to compete in the Olympics. Competing as a 10-year-old at the 1966 Commonwealth Games in Jamaica, she made history six years later in Munich.