Desharne Bent-Ashmeil: British diver on why she feels 'OK to be different' (2024)

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Desharne Bent-Ashmeil: British diver on why she feels 'OK to be different' (1)Image source, NickHopeTV

By Nick Hope

Olympic sports reporter

"My dream is to get to the Olympics, represent black people and try to put diving out there so more people from different backgrounds feel this is a sport for them."

Desharne Bent-Ashmeil's ambition is arguably even more striking than her appearance on poolside and the podium. For should that dream be realised, British Swimming and Team GB records suggest she would be the first black diver to represent Great Britain at an Olympic Games.

It is an unwanted statistic the teenager - and new European Games champion - aims to change by making history at Paris 2024.

"I used to feel like the odd one out as there weren't any other black divers," she tells BBC Sport.

"Now I feel it's OK to be different, because you should feel unique and special, but I also want more people to feel like this is a sport for them."

'I wanted to dive, but I didn't know how to swim!'

Raised in Crystal Palace, south London, Bent-Ashmeil initially grew up with aspirations of success in another sport - gymnastics - before taking an entirely different path after a chance encounter with what would go on to "take over" her life.

"I've always dreamed of going to the Olympics, but I used to do gymnastics and had never even heard of diving," says the 18-year-old.

"I was maybe 11 and was at the National Sports Centre watching my niece do gymnastics when I saw people diving for the first time.

"The pool was just opposite us and I thought it was amazing, so I told my mum I wanted to try it because of how much I loved sports."

Bent-Ashmeil laughs as she recalls that moment, adding: "My mum was like: 'Are you sure? Because you can't swim.' I had to get swimming lessons pretty quickly."

A six-month 'crash course' gave her the skills needed to reach the side of the pool after performing a dive and she was soon allowed to train - as well as compete.

'Chlorine would damage my hair'

During her time in gymnastics Bent-Ashmeil was "in awe" of world champion Beth Tweddle and even attended training sessions with the Olympic bronze medallist, but says she struggled to find role models who looked like her.

It was similar in diving, though seeing Canadian Olympic medallist Jennifer Abel competing in major televised events gave her hope.

"I always saw Jennifer and was like 'oh my gosh, there's a black diver on the world stage' and I wanted to be like her," she says.

"It was nice to have a role model because I did feel different around the pool when [other divers] would have conversations about their hair and I didn't have that type.

"When I was younger, I just used to 'relax my hair', which is not great for it, and then mixing it with chlorine is quite damaging, so it would break off a lot.

"I've learned to always grease it now and put products on straight after training so that it doesn't become weak.

"It's little tips like that which I didn't have, which I'd like to be able to share with other people."

Paris potential and medal-winning possibilities

Image source, LEN

The first significant signs of the skills Bent-Ashmeil possessed came in 2019, when she became European junior champion on the 1m springboard and was named Diving England's Talent Athlete of the Year., external

Domestic honours followed, and after joining established coach Jane Figueiredo - who guided Tom Daley and Matty Lee to Olympic gold at Tokyo 2020 - she made her senior breakthrough in 2022.

Then 17, she finished an impressive - but "agonising" - fourth alongside synchronised 3m springboard partner Amy Rollinson at both the Birmingham Commonwealth Games and European Championships in Rome.

"The Commonwealths was quite overwhelming because I've never done anything like that before, but it was such a welcoming and supportive environment," she tells BBC Sport.

"We were a bit gutted, but I felt quite confident in my abilities and I certainly gained a lot of confidence."

Creating a legacy that lasts in diving

Despite injuries and health concerns disrupting Bent-Ashmeil and Rollinson's training in early 2023, the pair secured selection for the European Games, where a breathtaking display brought them a maiden major title.

While they will not compete at the World Championships later this month - with Yasmin Harper and Scarlett Mew-Jensen picked for the event in f*ckuoka, Japan - with a full pre-season together, they will be major contenders for Paris 2024.

"After the challenges we had earlier in the year, I'm so proud of what we were able to achieve together," said Bent-Ashmeil as she reflected on her European Games success.

But while podium places are important to Bent-Ashmeil, she has a mission that can be measured by more than medals.

"I feel really proud to be that role model in this sport," she tells BBC Sport.

"I feel like I can represent and motivate younger generations to want to do it even if they're different, or there's no-one out there currently who looks like them.

"I hope that through me doing it, they'll feel more comfortable and think: 'I can do it too!'"

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Desharne Bent-Ashmeil: British diver on why she feels 'OK to be different' (2024)

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