Mexican diver Gaby Agúndez isn't letting budget cuts derail her Olympic dream

Gaby Agúndez has been diving for more than half her life. Yet she’s still frightened by the long climb to the top of the 10-meter platform.

“It happens to all divers,” said Agúndez, a two-time Pan American champion and a bronze medalist in the Tokyo Olympics. “We continue to feel butterflies in our stomach when we stand on the platform.”

But if the 59 steps up the tower are terrifying, the exhilaration of the 33-foot plunge to the water below more than makes up for the fright.

“The adrenaline you feel when you jump, it’s an inexplicable sensation,” Agúndez said in Spanish during a Zoom call from Mexico City. “It’s what captured me about my sport since I was little. I really liked that feeling of challenging myself, of overcoming a fear to show myself what I’m capable of.”

Agúndez has a chance to show the world what she’s capable of in this summer’s Paris Olympics, where she will be among Mexico’s top hopes for a medal.

Three years ago in Tokyo, she teamed with Alejandra Orozco to win bronze in the synchronized 10-meter platform, then finished fourth in the individual event. She followed that up with Pan Am golds in the individual and synchronized platform events and silver in the team competition in the last two World Aquatics Championships.

But that success brings with it the heavy weight of expectation, because if diving is of minor interest in many countries, in Mexico it borders on a national pastime. Not only has Mexico won more Olympic medals in diving than in any other sport — only five countries have more diving medals than Mexico’s 15 — but its most decorated Olympian, Joaquín Capilla, who won four medals between 1948-56, was also a diver.

As a result, every four years kids in Mexico are inspired not to become swimmers, sprinters or cyclists, but to take up diving. At least that’s how it happened for Agúndez, who remembers watching on TV as Germán Sánchez, Paola Espinosa and Orozco won Mexico’s only three silvers in the 2012 London Games.

“It was something that excited me a lot, seeing a Mexican compete and win a medal,” she said. “It motivated and inspired me. Maybe a child will see me and be motivated.”

But Agúndez, who will turn 24 the day before the individual platform event begins in Paris, said there’s also something in the national psyche than makes Mexicans good at diving.

“We have certain qualities for this sport,” she said. “Mexicans are characterized as being brave; I think that is something that helps us. The baton has been passed from generation to generation. Once a result has been achieved, we work to be able to maintain it.

“That has worked to make diving in Mexico what it is now, a world power.”

And it’s worked despite the best efforts of Mexico’s sports ministry, CONADE. Last year Ana Guevara, the former Olympic sprinter and politician who became CONADE’s president, cut funding from the Mexican swimming federation because of a spat with World Aquatics, the global governing body for six aquatic sports including diving.

That forced many athletes to find creative ways to make up for the loss of their government stipends as well as to pay for their participation in last year’s World Aquatic Championships in Fukuoka, Japan. The diving team released a video asking for donations while Kevin Berlin, who finished fourth in the synchronized platform event in Tokyo, launched his own beverage brand, Olympic Coffee. Diego Balleza, his Tokyo teammate, began posting content behind a paywall on the racy website OnlyFans.

“Fortunately, I have done well,” Balleza said.

Agúndez and Orozco, meanwhile, made plans to auction off their Olympic medals before AeroMexico agreed to cover their airfare.

The divers then embarrassed Guevara by winning a record six medals, finishing behind only China in the table. Osmar Olvera finished second in both the 1- and 3-meter springboard events, Balleza and Agúndez won silvers in team events and Berlin was third in the synchronized platform.

A court eventually ordered CONADE to resume some, but not all, of the withheld funding and in this year’s world championships, Olvera won a gold and a bronze, stamping himself as a favorite for Paris in both springboard events. Agúndez and Berlin also medaled again.

That will send Agúndez to the Olympics riding a wave of momentum, with medals in her last five major international competitions. In Paris she’ll have a chance at two more in the individual platform, where she’ll compete against Orozco, and in the synchronized event, where she’ll dive alongside the three-time Olympian.

“I don’t have any favorites,” she said of the two competitions. “In the individual, I like to feel that everything is in my hands. But I also really like the synchronized. It’s not easy to dive 10 meters alone, so it’s much less easy to dive 10 meters with a person next to you and know that what you have to do is exactly the same as the other person.”

Either way, the pressure will be on to reach the podium, something Mexico has failed to do in Olympic diving just once this century. For Agúndez, however, that pressure is a privilege.

“It’s a great responsibility,” she said. “But more than that responsibility or nerves of knowing that a good result is always expected, I like to see it from the side that it is pride, it is an honor.

“The people in Mexico, my family, the entire team trusts me, they believe in my work and they believe in my talent.”

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