Yona Knight-Wisdom, the diver making Jamaican sporting history
At the Olympic Games Rio 2016, Yona Knight-Wisdom became the first Jamaican male athlete to participate in an Olympic diving competition. But that was just the beginning; he now has his sights set on a medal at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 next year, and is leaving nothing to chance.
Yona Knight-Wisdom was born in Leeds, Great Britain, on 12 May 1995, to a Jamaican father and a mother from Barbados. His parents took him to a local swimming club and, although he was only 9 years old, it changed his life. "I was watching the Athens Games in 2004. I had just started diving and I saw Leon Taylor and Peter Waterfield win a silver medal in the men’s 10m synchronised diving event. It was after I saw them that I started to say that I could go to the Olympic Games," he explains.
Now on his way to becoming an elite athlete, in 2012 he chose to represent his father's country, Jamaica. Diving barely exists as a sport on the Caribbean island, which has amassed titles and medals in athletics on the world and Olympic stage. It is the home country of the greatest sprinter of all time, Usain Bolt. And Yona Knight-Wisdom is going to write his own sporting history.
As Yona himself says: "I am 1.90m tall, I weigh 90kg, I'm a heavy diver, I'm black. If you watch diving competitions, it's not something you'll see very often." During the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, he finished fifth in the 1m springboard and 11th in the 3m men’s springboard. They were Jamaica's best ever results in a discipline that requires power, awareness of one's body in space, extreme precision and timing, and the use of every muscle in the body.
During the FINA Diving World Cup 2016, which took place in February in Rio, Yona finished second in the 3m men’s springboard event. It was Jamaica's first medal in a world diving competition. He won his place at the Olympic Games Rio 2016, where the diving events were to be held at the same venue. He had realised his childhood dream by becoming the first Jamaican male diver to participate in an Olympic tournament, 44 years after Betsy Sharp (nee Sullivan) became the country's first Olympian in the sport at the 1972 Olympics in Munich. "I was overcome with emotion. I was in tears by the pool and my friends started crying too. That victory was not just for me, it was for all of them too," he says.
In Rio, where he was beginning to attract some attention, he finished 11th in the first heat of the 3m men’s springboard, allowing him to progress to the next stage, the semi-finals. But his competition ended there, and he finished in 14th place. He was only 21 at the time and was already looking ahead to the next Olympic Games, to be held in Tokyo in 2020. Meanwhile, he was elected sportsman of the year at his university, Leeds Beckett.
Two years later, Yona found himself at the Commonwealth Games on Australia's Gold Coast. He had already established something of a reputation and was competing among the favourites for the podiums in the 1m and 3m men’s springboard events. In the former, he reached the final with 368.15 points. When the moment of truth arrived, he improved on this, beating his own personal best with 388.65 points, but it was not quite enough to win him a medal; he finished fourth. In the 3m men’s springboard, he also earned a place in the final and finished in ninth place.
In the Olympic Channel series Anatomy of a Champion, the Anglo-Jamaican diver visited a laboratory in Liverpool, where all of his physical traits would be evaluated. Notably, he has a vertical jump of 70cm, higher than that of some basketball players! His abdominal muscles also garnered some attention. He explains: "I worked very hard for years to strengthen them. And this has helped me enormously because I want to make a good entry into the water, and this is what the judges see last. It's an important point and my abs help me a lot with that."
Given that he trains for over 25 hours a week, he has decided to leave Leeds for Scotland, specifically the Royal Commonwealth Pool in Edinburgh, and work with renowned coach Jenny Leeming in order to better prepare his assault on the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020. Yona Knight-Wisdom is pursuing his dream: to step onto the podium. Next stop, the Olympic Aquatics Centre in Tokyo from the end of July to early August next year!