The pandemic was no time to be on a gap year. A rite of passage the world over, it offers the opportunity to visit and expand new horizons, shrug off the school uniform, and find yourself as a grown-up before university and a modicum of responsibility and routine reassume control.
Covid changed all that. Tanya Watson’s friends found themselves cooped up at home back in Southampton, unable to party on a beach in Thailand, work on a sheep shearing station in New South Wales, or just meet up in the coffee shop or pub. A world of possibilities was closed to them when the door should have been wide open.
Watson? She spent her gap year qualifying for the Olympics.
Her score of 271.85 off the 10m platform at the FINA Diving World Cup in Tokyo in May was enough to confirm her place. She is the first Irish female diver to qualify for the Games and that alone has made all the hard work and sacrifices over the past 18 months more than worth it.
The 19-year-old was discommoded in much the same way as every elite athlete when the first lockdowns hit the UK and Ireland. Restricted to her house, she bought a blow-up mat and spent three months practising her somersaults. It was the next best thing to actually flinging yourself into a pool from a great height.
With her A levels cancelled and her home pool still shuttered, Watson made the trip over to Dublin to train at the National Aquatic Centre for most of summer 2020, and again for three weeks in October. Then a third trip post-Christmas turned into four-and-a-half-months.
“I was living on campus. Luckily I was living with a few swimmers and a diver called Claire (Ryan) so that really helped me. But I did really struggle about two months into my stay. I went in January and around March that was really hard.
“I was getting quite homesick. It’s one thing being in Dublin normally but being in Dublin in a lockdown when I can’t meet new people and I can’t go and explore the lovely scenery around me because of the travel limits that were in place.
“I really respected all the rules and regulations that were in place to keep me safe but I think emotionally it was really hard because I didn’t necessarily have that emotional support where people would meet physically.”
Each of those trips to Ireland involved a fortnight in isolation but Watson’s resolve and emotional maturity is obvious as she details the work she has done with sports psychologists who have introduced her to visualisation and breathing techniques.
Her faith has played a huge role in all this too.
A fear of failure plagued her until she was 16, when she started competing internationally, but she has leaned on that belief in God and benefited from support from the Christians In Sport charity to approach her career with a bedrock of positivity instead.
“Yeah, I’ve grown up in a Christian family,” she explains. “I was about 16 when I started competing internationally and it was around then that my faith really solidified for me.
“It’s very hard in sport because you are often defined by your performance. It’s so hard to bring yourself out of that state of feeling like a failure because I’ve had a bad day and, for me, my faith is very important because God loves me, no matter what.
“My family have also reiterated that to me as well, that they love me no matter how I perform. So for me, it’s important in life and in my sport,” Watson says, referring to her faith.
She has will compete in the early hours of tomorrow morning, thanks to all that personal growth and a late maternal grandmother who ended up in London via her native Derry.
Nothing can prepare you for your first Olympics but Ollie Dingley has at least done his best, the 3m specialist detailing his experiences last time out in Rio and transferring his excitement and energy over to his younger colleague.
University awaits in the form of a chemistry course at Oxford thanks to Watson’s predicted grades, but she would dearly love to go there having brought a fruitful gap year to an end with a place in the Olympic final.
“For me, I just want to go out there and give a consistent performance.”