Aimee Berg, World Aquatics Correspondent
Five divers made unforgettable debuts at the world championship this week in Doha. All are part of the World Aquatics Scholarship Programme. The diving training centre relocated to Toronto, Canada, last year and its leader, four-time Cuban Olympian Jose Antonio Guerra, said the programme has made him a better coach, too.
Among the hundreds of divers competing at the World Aquatics Championships in Doha this week, five are receiving unique help to reach their dreams.
They train in Toronto, Canada and they are part of diving’s World Aquatics Scholarship Programme, a year-long opportunity for 18- to 25-year-old talents from under-resourced areas to gain access to top facilities and coaching for a year.
The ‘Doha five’ represent Czechia, the Dominican Republic, Serbia, and Sri Lanka, and Venezuela. Back in Canada, they share a house, receive structured training plans, and work out in facilities that they agree are “incredible.” They all have Olympic aspirations, but their main goal is to maximize their potential.
For that, they all look to one person: the programme’s diving coach: Jose Antonio Guerra of Cuba, a four-time Olympian and 2005 world championship silver medallist on the 10m platform.
Guerra came to Toronto from Cuba in August 2022. The first diver arrived from India in early 2023. And now there are several.
When athletes come in, Guerra said, “The first thing I see is hope in their eyes.
“It’s very refreshing when you have kids that give their hearts to what they’re doing. They really appreciate everything that we are doing for them to improve their diving,” he said.
Along the way, he said, “I’m kind of like a godfather to all of them. Any time they have any issue, I’m the first person they call.
“It’s also educational for me.
“I’ve learned a lot from all of them. Every single diver is a different universe… from a different school of diving. I have to adapt what they already know and find the shortest and most efficient way to bring them to the ideal technique – in just a short period because they only have one year to learn a lot.”
The first thing he does is send them a questionnaire, asking them to list their weaknesses, strengths, goals, and what they want to accomplish in the scholarship programme. Then he asks for videos. After that, he creates a plan.
When they come, he said, “The first month is to get to know each other personally and technically. You can see videos, but until you have them there, you don’t know their strengths and their limitations. We need to be realistic."
The ultimate mission is four-fold. When they leave the scholarship, he said, "Our goal is that they’ve improved physically, technically, done new dives, and improved their scores."
Upon arrival, Guerra gives them a diagnostic physical test “to see if we need to improve flexibility, strength, jump capabilities. Then [I assess] technical aspects we need to improve to reach the real goals [which are higher scores and increased degree of difficulty].
“Every single one of them has a file with their goals we work on, since the moment they arrive.
At the same time, it pushes Guerra to be creative as a coach.
“I definitely used techniques we used in Cuba,” he said, “but not as aggressive. We split exercises up and go step and step in the safest way.”
Even though the programme only serves a handful of divers at the moment, Guerra said the impact is immense.
“Some of these kids have dreams and enough talent to fight and accomplish their goals, but they live in countries where they don’t have the support, the facilities, the means to even dream about it.
“World Aquatics is creating the structure they lack in their countries and giving them opportunities. I think it’s amazing – especially coming from a third-world country [myself].
“I’ve always experienced a lack of things, but Cuba is very big in sports. There’s a lot of structure, knowledge and science behind sport there. Even with all that we lack in quality of facility and the budget to do good competitive preparations sometimes, when I compare what I had in Cuba to what these kids have, we were kings! I’m not lying. We were on another planet compared to these kids. Some kids don’t have anything. They have nothing at all.
“Sometimes all they have is a diving pool and a lot of heart. And big dreams. That’s all they have.
“Having this opportunity that World Aquatics is creating? Come on!
“It’s good to thank the people behind this idea. Without them, none of [these five] would be here. Every single one of them attended their first World Championship thanks to this scholarship,” Guerra said.
At least two of the five divers in Doha came to Toronto in March 2023. One, Dhavgely Mendoza, 19, is from Barquisimeto, Venezuela, five hours southwest of Caracas. Back home, she had one indoor pool and two coaches. She started diving at age 4, and now dives full-time. She competed in women’s 10m in Doha.
“I wanted to bring my game to the next level,” she said. “When I was accepted, I cried. It’s real!”
When she arrived in Toronto, she said, “I feel super-super small in this country. The pool is incredible. In Canada, I train more hours, about five or six a day. For me, it’s like, ‘Wow.’ I don’t want to go back home [in September]. I feel so good in Canada.”
Jose David Calderon, 24, from Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, also arrived in March 2023. He started diving at age 6. Back home, he said there is 1m and 3m springboard, but the 3m is not high quality. Also, the pool leaks, so the water level goes down and it’s outdoors so practice is affected by wind and rain. Unlike in Toronto, he also has no dryland facility.
On Doha, he competed in men’s 1m and 3m synchro. His biggest improvement has been in his twists.
“My family is very proud of me,” he said. They were all watching from home. “I want to thank the program to give me the chance to be coached by [Guerra]. He’s a great role model.”
Ivana Medkova, 19, from Prague, Czechia, arrived in Toronto in September 2023 and is on a gap year. The former gymnast and trampolinist only started diving four years ago, at 15. “I didn’t know there was diving in Czechia,” she said, but when she grew bored with gymnastics, she found a pool in Prague. She started training full-time at 17, then Covid hit.
“In Toronto,” she said, access to “dry boards are the biggest advantage because I can focus on hurdles, the takeoff.” In Doha, she competed in 1m and 3m. “So far, I feel like my basics and technical aspects of diving really improved. We are making preparations for harder dives. I’m really looking forward to that.”