They used to call him "The Little Prince."
It was a function of diver Alexandre Despatie's bursting onto the international scene by winning the Commonwealth Games gold medal on the 10-metre platform in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia as a 13-year-old in 1998.
He's been a part of the national consciousness ever since. At his retirement announcement
on Tuesday in Montreal, the kind of adoration that is normally reserved for iconic hockey stars like Wayne Gretzky flowed unabashedly Despatie's way.
"Sometimes it's hard to see your friends leave and to leave yourself," Despatie said calmly. "I love you all."
He was, in turn, beloved by many Canadians. He had, before our very eyes
, transformed himself from the little prince into the king of diving in this country and well beyond.
"He earned his star status," his teammate and coach Arturo Miranda once said. "He doesn't show up just to participate. He always comes to win."
And win Despatie did.
His achievements may never be matched by a Canadian diver. In all, he won 37 national senior championships, two Olympic silver medals, nine Commonwealth Games gold medals, and four times he was the Pan American Games champion. He is the first and only man to have won a world championship title in each of diving's three individual disciplines -- the 1- and 3-metre springboard and the 10m platform.
Astonishingly, much of what Despatie was able to accomplish came in the face of the dominant Chinese divers from whom he never backed down.
"There's no great secret to it," he reflected just prior to his last Olympic appearance in London last summer. "It meant a lot of hard work but I never, ever wanted to stop getting better."
Perhaps at this juncture in his life, that resolve wavered.
The World Aquatics Championships in Barcelona are in a couple of months, and Despatie had been hoping to appear there to celebrate the 10th anniversary of his first world title. But a series of injuries and surgeries likely scuttled his plans.
And when you've enjoyed success and devotion as Despatie has over the course of his career, it makes little sense to risk it for a swan song which may prove less than inspiring.True grit
His timing in bowing out is, as usual, spotless.
He made the announcement in front of a corporate logo which belongs to the most familiar fast food brand on the face of the earth. Despatie made sure to thank his corporate sponsors who had signed him as a child and invested in his adult future.
Despatie delivered the goods almost without fail.
In spite of a broken foot just ahead of his silver-medal performance in Beijing and a frightening head injury
weeks prior to the London Olympics, Despatie answered the bell
and handled adversity with true grit.
There is an expression for those who are held in high esteem in his home province. He is often referred to as "Un enfant cherie des Quebecois,"
or "A beloved child of the Quebec people."
Much of that acclaim was won when Despatie starred at home and won two gold medals at the 2005 World Aquatics Championships in Montreal.
But more importantly, he never failed to live up to the potential we saw in him as a young person. Despatie has turned out to be much more than just a child star. He revolutionized diving in this country and turned heads across the generations.
This is rare in sport.
Glory is fleeting, and those able to make it last over the course of a long and distinguished run deserve to be celebrated. They become iconic figures with gusts to being considered national treasures.
This is the case with Alexandre Despatie.
"To the people of Montreal, Quebec and Canada, I never stopped feeling your support," he said as he moved on. "And for an athlete like me that is priceless."
What he did on his field of play is also priceless. Perhaps it's even more satisfying because, as Canadians, we watched the journey as the boy most emphatically became the man.
Follow Scott Russell on Twitter @SportsWkndScott and @TheFieldofPlay.
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