Before he learned to swim, Alexandre Despatie knew he could dive.
There was two-year-old Alex, leaping into his family pool and eventually arriving in the arms of his mother Christiane, who would carry him back to the diving board to do it all again.
A few years later, Alex started taking diving lessons. As coaches noticed the natural talent within the preschooler from Laval, Que., once-a-week sessions quickly turned into five times per week.
By the time he was six, Despatie began diving competitively.
“I didn't like the whole competition aspect of it. I just loved diving,” he says. “I remember one time specifically just lying to my coach at that time, saying ‘my stomach hurts so much. I don't want to do this. I don't feel like it.’ And then, you know, she made me do it anyway.”
Thus began Despatie’s incredible ascent, leading to a spot on the Canadian diving team at the 1998 Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and a gold medal – at the age of 13.
Alex: When I was nine, 10 years old, I was like: I want to go to the Olympics. And obviously the pathway to that was the Commonwealth Games.
Christiane: He decided to get some experience with men and see how more experienced people in diving were doing in the world. And it was definitely his farthest trip, the biggest trip, the longest trip of his young life.
Mitch Geller, coach and CBC Sports commentator: We were unveiling this young man who we had no real idea of how he was going to perform there. We saw what he was able to do in Canada. … This was his first international event on 10-metre. So nobody really knew what he was capable of doing.
Eryn Bulmer Barrett, Canadian teammate: He was just always special, like that little phenom that was coming up. He just had incredible work ethic and confidence that was maturity beyond his years in the sport and his ability to just learn the new dives and push limits, even as a very young diver.
Alex: I just wanted to dive – that's all that mattered. I became, in a positive way, obsessed with the objective, like get to the Olympics, get to win a medal, get to be the best in the world.
Christiane: He looked at me and he was [a] very, very mature kid. And he said, ‘Mom, don't cry.’ … . So I was at the airport and I was trying not to cry. And finally, we said goodbye and we waved goodbye. And the moment [he] disappeared from my sight, I cried for an hour.
Bulmer Barrett: I recall promising his mom that I’d take care of her baby at the Games. As a team we all felt this way about Alex and collectively surrounded him with lots of love.
Geller: The whole flight over, it was all Disneyland to him. He got to watch movies and play video games on the plane and [was] just completely, completely enamored with the whole process of going to this big competition on the other side of the world.
Bulmer Barrett: He would curl up next to you on the couch or fall asleep on you. And he's like a sweet little guy. So I feel like my role was like sort of big sister, but a little bit protector and look out for him.
Alex: I was the mascot of all of Team Canada and all the sports because I was the youngest and just like this kid with braces type [of] thing. But when we finally got there, the main thing I wanted to see in the Athletes’ Village was the cafeteria. I want to see where the food is, like, what are we eating for the next couple of weeks?
Christiane: The only thing I wanted to know as a mom was everything is fine. You're okay. I was not even thinking about this competition. I was just thinking about his well-being, his happiness.
Bulmer Barrett: He was very, very mature. But I was always very aware of where he was, and just making sure he was never left behind and always with the group. He was just like a cuddly, snuggly little guy. … He was all of our little brother.
Geller: He seemed to be taking it all in with such a fresh, almost naïve perspective of a youngster that's just experiencing all new things in life.
Alex: That innocence, right? It helped a lot because I had no expectations. I showed up for an event and [it] just turned out to change my life.
Christiane: We didn't have much news [in Quebec]. At the beginning, I was writing to the coach to see if everything was fine. I spoke with Alex a couple of times and everything was fine and he was gaining experience. And then the competition started and then we had no news and we said, ‘Well, let's hope for the best.’
In his first event, the three-metre springboard, Despatie places 10th. His next event, the 10m platform, takes place the following day. Despatie soars through to the final in first place.
Alex: In the warmup, we were on the 10m platform and waiting for your turn to go. And then at one point with one of the other divers, I go, ‘Oh, is that you or me?’ He goes, ‘I don't know.’ I said, ‘OK, let's do rock, paper, scissors.’ This is, like, minutes before the event. … And that's the mindset – not like I wasn’t focused, but not like worried about a thing. I was just like, ‘Holy s--t, I'm in a final here at the Commonwealth Games.’
Geller: He was really well-prepared, like the quality of his diving and the fact that there wasn't any explicit expectations at that time.
Bulmer Barrett: He was just very carefree. If he was nervous, you couldn't tell. And whether that was just always his cool, calm, collected nature, which he carried through the rest of his career, I don't know. Or if it was just oblivion because he was young and this is like that first multi-sport Games.
Christiane: This word ‘Games’ brings you to another level of emotions when you get there, of nervousness. When you get there, you have to adapt. You have to stay calm. You have to still do what you're supposed to do when you dive and you have to concentrate. You have to take care of yourself. You take care of your head, your body, everything.
Alex: I was in first place, so I didn't even think about that. I was just like, ‘Oh, I get to dive again. Great!’
Geller: I don't know that he was in there competing for gold. He was just thrilled to be doing each and every dive, like it was just the sheer joy that he was sort of exhibiting within the competition and the fact that he was just so excited to be part of it. It was infectious.
Alex: It was nighttime, [and] the venue wasn't completely outdoors. It had a rooftop, but like everything else was open, crowd was going crazy. There's tonnes and tonnes of people there. And once it started, I didn't look back.
Christiane: We said, ‘OK, let's hope for the best.’ We should have some news at one time, like it's going well, he made the semis, finals. Nothing. We had nothing.
Bulmer Barrett: Even though he was still a small teenage boy, he stood on the end of that tower like a big, strong, powerful, commanding man.
Alex: Everything lined up like straight from the first dive, which was a hard one and couple little mistakes here and there.
Geller: When he did his front three-and-a-half, I think he got a 10 on something very close to that, and he turned to the camera and he said, ‘That's for you, Mom,’ or ‘I love you, Mom’ or something. That was just so endearing.
Alex: I think that was my first-ever perfect score. The camera is following you after every dive. And that was all new to me as well, but I didn't really pay attention to it except for when I got that perfect 10.
Bulmer Barrett: Not only was he consistent, but he was spectacular on a few, if not all of his dives, just disappearing into the water, no splash. The entire [crowd] watching him, I think, was just erupting more and more with excitement and energy as the contest went on, because what he was doing, everybody was aware how young he was and how historical it was going to be if he won this event to be the youngest athlete ever to take a Commonwealth Games title.
Geller: I was doing the commentary and I was nervous for each and every dive that he was doing. But it just seemed like he could do no wrong at that point.
Christiane: We wake up on Sunday morning and the phone rings at 7:30, 8. We have no news. And we said, OK, maybe it's finished. We just have a big portrait of the schedule over there. So the phone rings and somebody says, ‘Hello, are you Mrs. Despatie?’ Yes. ‘Well, we have news for you.’ And my first thought was, ‘Oh, dear, [he] had an accident.’ Yes, that was my first thought. [He] hit the board or [he] hit the tower.
And the guy says to me, ‘Well, your son won the Commonwealth Games on 10 metres.’ I said, ‘Excuse me, maybe I didn't hear?’ He said, ‘Your son just won the 10-metre event in Kuala Lumpur at the Commonwealth Games.’ And my husband [Pierre] and me, we were speechless. Mouth opened. Like, how did this happen? And this is when our lives changed. From that moment, our life was changed forever.
Alex: I cried, which was a surprise even to me. I was like, ‘What's going on here?’
Bulmer Barrett: I think that all of us were crying when he won because it was just such a special moment.
Geller: It was one of the purest sports moments that I can recall, where an athlete just gets to go in and experience the joy of performing. And that's what it looked like. That's what it felt like. And I think he was able to project that and express his love of the sport right then and there.
Alex: Another famous image is when Tony Ally, a British diver who looks like a UFC fighter, essentially, even when he was diving, he just picks me up and goes, ‘let's show you to the crowd.’
It was intense. I didn't really realize the meaning of that at the moment.
Christiane: He was so small [on Ally’s] shoulder. And this is a picture that's in my head for the rest of my life.
Geller: I've never seen that ever before nor ever since.
Alex: People started making me realize that I was the youngest gold-medal winner of all sports in the history of those Games. That's when it starts hitting you, right? Like even as a 13-year-old kid, I was like, 'wait a minute.'
Christiane: When they gave him his medal, he was [still] smaller than the one who was on the third step of the podium. So this was very odd. It was so funny.
Geller: That was sort of the launching point of just that infectious personality that he brought with him. The other divers rallied around him – [even] the ones that he beat.
Alex: Once I got home, the amount of people at the airport, the media and whatever followed after that was life-changing.
Christiane: The police escorted him. He was alone with the police in the car. And we followed the car to the house, which was a bit too much, I have to admit. And this was just the beginning, because the day after we woke up in the morning and there were six TV channels in our street. And we honestly didn't know what to do with that.
Bulmer Barrett: From that point forward, he was very much a force in the sport, both on 10-metre platform as well as in the springboard event. And he just continued to push his limits, pushed the envelope of the sport and be competitive and challenge the Chinese, which is really, really hard to do.
Geller: He just immediately established himself as a media darling right then and there. Just the fact that he's so genuine and so connected with how he felt at the time, the way he could describe the experience. And super articulate. All the pieces were there in terms of the emergence of a young superstar.
Christiane: He became a better human being after that, and a better athlete. He knew that you have to work really, really hard to keep going. And, you know, winning is one thing. Keeping [on] winning is another thing. It's your first at one major competition.
You really have to do a lot of work to stay between the top three in the world. And that's what he did.
Alex: Winning that medal just confirmed [that] I'm a player now. I can compete with the best in the world. I can win medals. I can dream of being the best in the world.
Despatie would go on to become the most decorated male diver in Canadian history, winning two Olympic silver medals and reaching eight podiums at world championships, including three gold medals. He retired in 2013 and was inducted to Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame in 2018.