PAUL ROUSE: When crowds turned out to see the graceful Eddie Heron dive

Eddie Heron stands on the board three metres above the Blackrock Baths. It is a warm Friday night in Dublin and a big crowd have gathered to watch the Irish National Diving Championships.

Waiting for Eddie to dive is the reigning champion George Matulevicze of the Ulster Swimming Club, who has already won the one-metre springboard championship earlier in the day.

Also waiting is the brilliant Kevin Carter of Bangor Swimming Club, himself a former winner of the championship on six occasions.

It is Eddie who the crowd are here to see, however. He has been diving off the boards at Blackrock Baths all his life and is a member of the Sandycove Swimming Club, which had originated at nearby Forty-Foot, but now use Blackrock Baths as its home base.

He is their darling, the greatest of them all.

Two things now happen, just as they have always happened when Eddie jumps from a springboard into a pool to the cheers of the crowd: He dives beautifully, hitting the water with glorious precision — and he wins. Across 10 dives, Eddie scores a total of 108.89 points. This puts him more than 20 points ahead of Matulevicze, who finishes second with 88.21 points, and Carter, who comes third with 83.17 points.

Eddie Heron is Irish 3-metre Springboard Champion. Again. But this is different. It is 1968 and he is 57 years of age. And he has not competed in the Irish championships for some 18 years.

Eddie had retired from competing in the Irish championships as far back as 1950. By then he had won 34 Irish national senior titles.

His first year competing at senior level had been as long ago as 1924, when he came third in the Tailteann Games (to Olympic gold medalist Dick Eve and Irish champion Charlie Batt).

He was just 13 at the time. Later in 1924, he won the first of his Leinster senior high diving titles and he dominated that competition year after year over the next three decades.

There were high points to Eddie’s dominance. In 1933 he became the only Irishman to win the British Open high-diving championship. Either side of that victory, he was placed second and deemed unlucky not to have won.

However, best of all, his diving exhibitions around Ireland drew thousands of people to see him display his extraordinary talent. Watching Eddie run through his repertoire of dives was something rare and gorgeous.

There was sadness, too. In 1936, he would have been a serious contender for Olympic gold, but a dispute over partition ensured that Ireland did not send a team to the Berlin Games.

By the time he did finally get to compete at an Olympic Games — London in 1948 — he was no longer at his best and did not feature in the medals.

Two years later he slipped into retirement. He was he greatest diver the country had ever seen, a man so brilliant that, in 1976, he became the only water sports person to be elected to the Texaco Sports Stars Hall of Fame.

So, why did Eddie Heron come out of retirement in 1968 at the age of 57?

The first and practical answer is that his club, Sandycove Swimming Club, pressed him to do so. They could find no diver to represent the club, so they pushed Eddie to compete and, eventually, he agreed.

However, there is something else that matters: Heron was in a position to agree to dive, because he had never stopped diving in the first place.

After he finished formally competing, he continued to swim in the sea, and Sandycove, and he continued to dive at Blackrock Baths.

When he was well into his 60s — and even into his 70s — large crowds continued to gather to watch him dive.

Memoirs of people who grew up in Blackrock recall seeing Heron’s extraordinary athleticism as he climbed the steps again and again to jump from the highest board.

They recall seeing him twist and jackknife in the air, straighten and then shoot into the water as straight as an Eddie.

There was obviously something in Eddie that loved the applause of the crowd, loved performing, and loved competing, but most of all must have been the love of diving itself.

This was something that had come to him from his father, a butcher who originally hailed from Co Carlow and who had been a passionate diver and gymnast.

Living in a small terraced house, just off the North Circular Road in Dublin, Eddie had been shown how to dive by his father from the age of four.

Later, Eddie moved to Blackrock and worked as a bookie in the village. In retirement, he continued to live in the area, becoming one of those figures that transcends the generations. On his death in 1985, he was buried in Shanganagh Cemetery and it was as part of a series of articles written by Gabriel Conroy in a local magazine called Scan that his story has been retold.

The Blackrock Baths are now gone, but a plaque near the location is dedicated to Eddie and an annual race in his honour is organised every year by Sandycove Swimming Club from Dun Laoghaire to Blackrock.

None of these matter to Eddie now, of course. Neither could he take his medals with him. Winning mattered, obviously, but what really matters is that he lived a life in sport, and the meaning of the memorials to his name lies in their significance to those who swim and dive for competition and for pleasure.

They honour the man, but also honour a sport that lives towards the margins of Irish sporting life and is no less beloved of its adherents than any other.



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