Mayur Vyas: Meet India’s first and only diving judge at Tokyo 2020
Mayur Vyas was first judged as a 16-year-old at the posh Mafatlal Swimming Club in South Bombay, and not in a good way. “Are you a member here?” a coach had looked him in the eye and probed. Vyas doesn’t recall whether he had managed to whimper out a ‘no’ or shake his head because what followed that brief moment of shame that morning in 1974, was significant in shaping the rest of his life.
Sitting with Olympics.com minutes before heading to the Tokyo Aquatics Centre as one of the judges in Tokyo 2020’s Diving events, Vyas shares with us his story.
The boy who sneaked into pools
“Ghusi ne jata ’ta! (We used to sneak in!)” Vyas smiles, talking in Gujarati about how he would seek the highs of being in the exclusive pool because his friends and himself were too ‘lower middle-class’ to afford a membership.
“One of the days, I spotted someone diving, and immediately went up and dived by myself ...with my own somersault!” Vyas recalls. He must have looked impressive, because what followed was not a penalty for trespassing but the coach taking him to the secretary to hand him the elusive membership, costing Rs 36 (about 0.5 USD today) a year.
“It was actually a literal failure that drove me to swimming,” Vyas reminisces. “I had failed in my SSC (Grade 10th) examinations. We (the boys around his neighbourhood) had so much time, you know, there were no mobiles then! All we would do is swim and dive at Mafatlal all day!”
But more than offering him the depths to escape the social stigma around academic failure, the pool began shaping Vyas into a sportsperson for life. “I realised only after many years, that swimming gave me the confidence to study again (he ended with a Bachelor’s degree in history and psychology) - and it took me to spend my life in sports,” he admits.
And quite a lifetime he’s indeed had - having become state champion three months after that morning, national bronze medallist at 23 and perhaps most importantly, a junior clerk with Western Railways. As the second youngest of four brothers raised modestly by parents, the regular Rs 400-a-month salary was critical.
National swimmer to national coach
It was the financial uptick in coaching opportunities that led Vyas to dive into it full-time, and he spent years recruiting and mentoring swimming champions for the Railways. By the time the Commonwealth Games arrived home, Vyas had climbed up to be the name without whom no major diving championship would be held in India.
“In CWG 2010, I was actually appointed chief coach of the Indian team, but it so happened that the organisers needed administrative help, and I had passed the
FINA (the international federation for water sports) School, so I switched to become Deputy Competition Director - that was my first big competition as coach too,” Vyas shares.
Six years later, a letter inviting him to judge at Rio 2016 made him ‘jump’, albeit this time he didn’t need a duralumin diving board. Now, at Tokyo 2020, Vyas remains India’s only diving judge. Fantasy as it all seems like to the boy from Princess Street - to travel to the Olympics, suit up and sit by the pool, watch the world’s finest humans make magical manoeuvres into an expanse of blue, press buttons to decide their fate - the pressure and preparation behind it all is not to be undermined.
What goes into judging the dive?
“First of all, it’s the lights,” Vyas tells of the floodlights at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre, which strain his eyes, an adjustment he had to make after having judged and coached mostly in open, daytime environments. The rest of it, as he describes, is a heady mix of pressure, professionalism and protocol, nothing that he’s now averse to. “Before we punch in that score, we (seven judges - three on one side of the diver and four on another) watch so many movements - the stance, the approach to the board, the take-off, the direction of somersaults or twists and finally the entry into the water (the best divers enter without a splash, just let bubbling foam on the surface, something termed as a ‘rip entry’),” he gestures, adding, “And you have to score immediately - there are no replays!”
Vyas is aware that the decisions he makes within seconds impact divers’ careers. “There is tremendous pressure. There is always that feeling of having given someone half a point more or half a point less - you are affecting someone’s life!” he says. That’s where his matchday preparations help. Vyas and his colleagues go early, watch divers’ training to acquaint their eyes; there is also a pep talk for the judges’ team ahead of the main event, in the form of a briefing. “You judge the dive, not the diver,” being their recurring mantra for objectivity. Then, a few minutes of deep breaths with closed eyes, sips of water and action.
“You’re sitting in that chair, you’re watching the most stunning dives, you get goosebumps and you press a number. There is that guilt, but then there is also validation when your score matches that of most other judges,” he shares. “Just yesterday, there was this 14-year-old Chinese girl (Quan Hongchan) who pulled off the most unbelievable dive… I hit 10, and it turned out to be a perfect 10 from all of us!” It’s for living moments such as these at age 63 that Vyas and his family have sacrificed much, especially amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I won’t be able to make it to Paris 2024 - I’ll be overage by rules. So I couldn’t have missed this for the world - believe me, I was indoors for the whole year-and-a-half before this!” Vyas says, now referring to his suburban apartment in North Mumbai. “Luckily, I got COVID in November - and I got two vaccines after!” - that’s one way to look at the virus.
Mayur Vyas may be the Diving Technical Committee Member of the Asia Swimming Federation but the Olympics accreditation card hanging around his neck feels no less than a medal.
It will be a souvenir after Tokyo 2020, but Vyas has more in store. That way, he will keep diving into his passion, keep the goosebumps coming, and have no one stop and question him, ‘Are you a member here?’