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Teen Tamai makes small splash to gain spot in Olympic diving

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Rikuto Tamai executes a dive during the preliminary round of the men’s 10-meter platform event at the FINA Diving World Cup in Tokyo on Monday.

Rikuto Tamai needed the dive of a life that still hadn’t reached its 15th birthday. He was one place out of qualifying for the Tokyo Olympics, with only one attempt remaining.

He nailed it. Tamai scored big on his last dive in the preliminary round at the FINA Diving World Cup on Monday in Tokyo to advance to the semifinals in the men’s 10-meter platform in 15th place, good enough to fulfill the Japan Swimming Association’s criteria for securing a spot at the Tokyo Olympics.

“The pressure was so heavy it’s like I couldn’t feel my legs,” Tamai said of his feeling going into his final dive while sitting in 19th place at the event serving as a test event for the Tokyo Olympics.

Tamai, a third-year student at Takatsukasa Junior High School in Takarazuka, Hyogo Prefecture, then finished ninth in the semifinal round to earn a place among the 12 finalists who were to compete for the medals Tuesday night at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre, the venue for the Tokyo Olympics.

Tamai will look to add to the two silver medals he won in FINA Grand Prix meets in 2019. But it never would have been possible had he not stepped up and made it out of the preliminary round in the event that includes foreign competitors.

Tamai flubbed two of his dives and was tied for 19th place with one attempt remaining and the federation’s Olympic qualifying criteria of “finishing in the top 18 and making the semifinals” clearly in mind.

“I’m definitely going to make it on the last one,” the teen told himself as he became visibly determined.

With everything on the line, Tamai pulled out all the stops, executing a back somersault with a twist. He hit the pool with barely a splash, gaining a high score that propelled him up the standings.

Two years ago, Tamai made a big splash when he won the national championship in his debut on the senior level. At the time, he was too young to appear at that year’s world championships or Asian Cup, which both served as Olympic qualifiers. This year’s World Cup was his first and last chance.

Unlike in the synchronized diving event, the host country has no automatic places in individual events, so Japanese divers must qualify in the same process as their foreign rivals.

What makes Tamai globally competitive is that his 1.55-meter, 51-kilogram frame helps him execute his twists at great speed. “He has very strong core muscles, like those of a gymnast,” national team coach Suuei Mabuchi said.

Tamai, who will turn 15 in September, started diving when he was in the first grade. The hard training caused his friends to drop out and occasionally left him in tears himself. But he stuck it out, and several years later trained under Mabuchi along with veteran Ken Terauchi, who has also qualified for the Tokyo Games.

He showed great potential early on, and was invited to a national training camp in China while still in fourth grade. “It was the first time for me to be away from my parents, and I didn’t want to go,” he said.

But the experience made him even more motivated. In April 2019, he had only just entered junior high school when he became, at 12, the youngest-ever winner at the Japan indoor championships.

Even without the year’s postponement, Tamai would have eligible to compete at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics at 13. But he sees a positive side to the delay.

“It gives me more time to practice and gets me closer to a medal,” he said.

When he was in sixth grade, the students were asked to write what they would say if they met the future themselves at age 20. “Your efforts will never betray you,” wrote Tamai, whose toils have already taken him to the Olympics.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Rikuto Tamai, left, is congratulated by coach Suuei Mabuchi after the semifinal round of the men’s 10-meter platform, in which he placed ninth to advance to the final.