One of Mexico’s most famous athletes reveals why he has unfinished business at the Olympics, and shines a light on the extreme challenges he has overcome both in the pool, and as a reality TV star.
Mexican diving star Rommel Pacheco loves a challenge.
During a 20-year career that has so far included three Olympic Games and three world championships medals, the Merida native has dealt with controversial non-selections, suffered near misses in the pool, and has exposed himself to extreme reality TV environments.
Despite his rich vein of form, qualifying Mexico’s place in the 3m individual springboard event at Tokyo 2020, he is still viewing the one-year postponement to Tokyo 2020, and his current isolation, as a chance to improve himself.
“The news of the postponed Olympic Games for the summer of next year left me a little calmer, knowing that I will have more than a year to prepare to arrive in Tokyo in the best way,” the 33-year-old told Tokyo 2020.org.
“I will use that time to visualise the dives, to focus on what the next year will be like. I'm sure everyone is looking forward to the Olympic party. Surely it will be the watershed to tell everyone the world is fine, we are united and this is what sport can do.”
Isolation a familiar feeling
Pacheco chose to move back to his home in Merida during the lockdown, as the state of Yucatan has not been as badly affected as the Mexican capital.
Other than not being able to train in the pool, he has found comfort in his isolation habits, as well as being able to fully relax.
“I am reading books and watching TV series. I spend an hour and a half exercising every day, as the most important thing for divers is to maintain leg strength. I also do cardio so that my abs don't go away!" he said in a hint that maintaining his image on social media is almost as much a priority as his athletic form.
“The truth is that athletes are used to a routine. Waking up in the same space, practising in the same swimming complex or being in the Olympic village, and going back to your room".
“I am also taking the opportunity to relax and rest, which I normally don’t do. Normally I am practising diving, competing, at business meetings, and generating content for social media."
Social media stardom
Pacheco isn’t exaggerating when he makes creating social media content sound like a major task. Diving is a big deal in Mexico, which makes him one of the most famous athletes in the Aztec land.
Despite gaining his initial popularity as an athlete, it is outside the pool that the three-time Pan American Games champion arguably makes a bigger splash.
The affable athlete enjoys well over one million followers on his social media handles combined, and even made a guest appearance on fellow diving celebrity Tom Daley’s channel. The Brit then returned the favour, taking part in a diving competition with spice-eating forfeits for Pacheco’s followers.
In 2018 Pacheco took part in Exatlón Mexico, one of the most popular reality TV shows in the North American nation, which presented extreme challenges for the diver to test himself against.
“In truth, the reality show made me really suffer. There was limited food and water, no light, no bathroom… really quite precarious and extreme conditions".
“It really left us valuing everything we have, and to be able to hug someone without any problem, have dinner and leave your house to breathe, see the sun, take a walk in the park, all those little things that we take for granted.
“In a similar way, I think that after we overcome this coronavirus problem, everyone is going to be a little more human than we were before.”
The Pacheco brand is expanding too. In 2019, his triathlete sister Kennya also took part on the show.
Last year, Pacheco momentarily ditched the swimming trunks for sequin outfits as he took part in Mexico’s version of Dancing with the Stars. A challenge that proved much more comparable to his normal occupation.
“I had a good time because I had normal comforts. I lived at home, I ate. Although it was quite difficult training because we were practising almost 10 hours a day to learn the routines".
“I'm not a very agile dancer, so it was hard for me to learn the routines. But the challenge of doing it in front of the public made me more confident as a diver. After rising to this challenge, when I got back to the pool I was calmer and more relaxed."
In November 2019 Pacheco was engaged to youtuber and influencer Lylo Fa, reportedly sealing the deal with a 300,000 pesos (USD 12,850) ring.
They had openly planned to have the wedding at the conclusion of Tokyo 2020, but it is yet to be seen whether they will also postpone their big day or not.
But it hasn’t always been bright lights and big smiles for one of Mexico's most recognisable faces.
Despite having won three diving world championship medals, he is yet to seal a podium finish at the Olympics in three attempts.
His most agonising Olympic finishes came at Rio 2016, where the veteran diver looked on course for a medal in both the 3m individual and synchronised events, until dropping off the podium in the final rounds.
“I was a little sad and angry because the two medals I almost had in my hands both ran away".
“After the Rio Games, the truth is that I did not know whether to continue or not. But I got excited at the closing ceremony when the handover to Tokyo began, and I saw the video with the characters I grew up with including Dragon Ball and Mario Bros.”
In 2018, the Mexican Swimming Federation controversially omitted Pacheco and his long-term synchronised partner Jahir Ocampo from the FINA Diving World Series, despite the divers’ meeting all qualifying criteria.
This was followed by another devastating omission from the 2019 Pan American Games squad, despite three-time Pan Am champion Pacheco and Ocampo being ranked No. 1 ranked in the nation at the time.
However, the diving duo were determined to rise to the challenge. And they did it in style.
Pacheco and Ocampo roared back to the top of diving in 2019, securing three 3m synchronised podium finishes in the world series.
Pacheco then sealed his comeback with an unexpected world championship silver medal in the non-Olympic 1m individual springboard event at Gwangju 2019, before making the final of the 3m individual springboard and qualifying Mexico’s berth at the Olympics.
2016 Getty Images
Qualifying for Tokyo 2020
At 33-years-old, Tokyo 2020 will likely be Pacheco’s fourth and final attempt at winning the only award that isn’t in his collection: an Olympic medal.
Despite qualifying Mexico’s place at the Games, it is still to be confirmed if the Mexican Swimming Federation will select him to take part in the 3m springboard individual and synchronised events.
“I would love to go for both disciplines,” he continued.
“It is a matter of waiting. I am in communication with Jair, and he is just like me, physically maintaining himself and when it is time to compete and follow the process.
But with over a year to go until the Games in Tokyo, Pacheco was quick to highlight how quickly the qualification environment could change, especially after a global virus pandemic.
“Today someone can be at their best level but in a year we don't know how things are going to be".
“We don't know which country will recover the fastest, which countries will be able to return and train properly. There will be fewer competitions, I imagine, which will bring many changes. The ones who adapt the best to what is happening are the ones who will have the best result.”
While the Olympic Games would seem like a natural conclusion to a veteran diver’s career, Pacheco is unsurprisingly challenging himself to keep competing beyond Tokyo 2020.
“The idea is to continue. I am not a child. I am 33-years-old this year, in July I will be 34 next year, and I will be 35-years-old at the Olympic Games".
“These are my last years, and surely my last Olympic Games. But my period in sports has been extended by the postponement. Maybe it is a sign that it was not yet my time to retire and to continue doing dives."
“We have to take the delay in a positive way, instead of just regretting why he can't train. I think our appreciation of the sport will increase after. For now, I will continue with chasing my Olympic dream, and therefore I’m happy. I will remain a diver, and this dream continues."