MEN’S FASHION: Champion diver Alexandre Despatie on his return to Olympic form

Alexandre Despatie
Photography by Gabor Jurina
Alexandre Despatie
Photography by Gabor Jurina

For Alexandre Despatie, diving is all about aesthetics. “Every time I step on the boards, I’m judged by how I look,” says the two-time Olympic medallist while on set at his Men’s FASHION cover shoot in Toronto. “It’s a fact I live with. My form has to be sharp. Every angle of my body is studied—it’s what I’m marked on.”

At a solid five-foot-eight and 155 pounds, Despatie’s frame is noticeably well toned. As he approaches the camera in a brief black swimsuit, an air of confidence radiates from his diamond-cut build. “Our bodies are our machines—our Formula One race cars,” he later says, after throwing on a pair of jeans and a T-shirt. “They need to be perfect to run well.”

In the midst of preparing for the London Summer Games—his fourth Olympiad to date—the Montrealer is clearly running on overdrive. Heading to the gym six days a week, he maintains a schedule that befits his title as Canada’s 36-time senior diving champion. Yet his daily routine—which includes 1,000 crunches, one hour of strength training, 20 minutes of trampoline work, an indoor cycling program called PowerWatts and 50 sets of ab exercises called “pike-ups”—is something he feels “lucky” to be able to  do at all.

“If we’d spoken [last year] when my knee injury happened, I wouldn’t be sure what to say to you about my situation,” Despatie says. His diagnosis of tendinitis and bursitis left him no choice but to opt out of joining the Canadian diving team at the 2011 World Games. “The pain wasn’t settling down,” he explains. “I even started thinking that it might be the end of my career, because I couldn’t dive in that condition.” With treatment and physical therapy, the 26-year-old recovered and quickly began to plot another Olympic coup.

“Being back and fitter than ever, the desire and the flame to win have been reignited,” Despatie says. His return to form is something he has been sharing with the public since he began tweeting in January. “Nothing short of a disaster… this is how I feel,” he posted after what was supposed to be his comeback performance at the FINA Diving Grand Prix in February. However, he redeemed himself a week later at the 2012 World Cup, earning a bronze medal in the three-metre diving category and securing his place at the London Olympic Games. 

Alexandre Despatie
Shirt, $930, by Prada at Holt Renfrew; shorts, $90, by J.Lindeberg. Photography by Gabor Jurina

Although there have been setbacks, Despatie’s rise seems fit for an HBO documentary. His training began when he was five, near his parents’ home in Laval, Que., and spanned two decades and three coaches as he refined his technique on the boards. He first made headlines in 1998 at the age of 13, when he became the youngest diver in history to win a gold medal at the Commonwealth Games—an achievement recognized in the Guinness Book of Records. Following a slew of competitions and bouts of heavy training, Despatie made it to his first Olympic Games in Sydney in 2000, where he placed fourth overall. Hungry for a medal, he kept his drive so well fuelled that he was asked to join the Canadian Olympic team in Athens (2004) and Beijing (2008). In both cities, he won silver medals in the three-metre springboard competition. 

The payoff for this resolve: Despatie is the only diver in Canadian history to be world champion in all three categories—the one-, three- and 10-metre events. As epic as this seems, he is not finished with his own diving legacy. “The Olympic gold is the only one missing for me,” he recently told TSN. “It’s my dream, my objective.” 

Despatie’s competition strategies and approach seem more similar to a method actor’s process than a professional athlete’s mantra. This is no accident. The big, shiny silver ring he wears flashes the tragedy and comedy face masks, hinting at his plan to shift gears post-diving and pursue an acting career. The path from athlete to actor may be a bit chancy—for every Arnold Schwarzenegger and Burt Reynolds there’s a litter of Dennis Rodmans and John McEnroes—but Despatie is quick to point out the parallels between the two occupations.

“Every time I step on the boards, I’m judged by how I look. It’s a fact I live with. My form has to be sharp. Every angle of my body is studied—it’s what I’m marked on.”

“Diving is performance,” he says. “It’s being forced to produce something great at a specific moment, not necessarily when you’re ready. There’s a thing they call ‘the zone’—when athletes are in full control of themselves. I’ve been there before, and I know what it is. All that you have—your mind and heart—must focus to get there. When actors have certain types of scenes, they have to get into that same mindset. In both cases, you have to shine.”

Despatie has already had a taste of on-screen experience. He did TV reporting during the Vancouver Winter Olympics and has appeared in two French-Canadian movies: À vos marques… Party! (Taking the Plunge) and its sequel, À vos marques… Party! 2. Intent on taking his second vocation as seriously as his first, he prepared for the films by studying with veteran Québécoise actor Louise Laparé. “The one thing that I hadn’t realized is that although you have your script, you can play it a million different ways—angry, loving, calm, etc.,” he says. “She instilled this awareness in me.”

Asked which leading men he looks up to, Despatie is quick to list Robert DeNiro and Sean Penn. “I recently saw There Will Be Blood, with Daniel Day-Lewis, and was made speechless by what he brought to that role,” he says. “It made me think of Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman and the intensity he brought to that film. Those kinds of performances make me want to act.”

Alexandre Despatie
Styled by Alon Freeman for; grooming by Susana Hong for; Jacket, $2,350, by Zegna Sport; Swimsuit, Alexandre’s own. Photography by Gabor Jurina

Despatie is also conscious of looking his best in and out of the pool. He is given to tweeting about his fashion preferences (he recently raved about attending Stella McCartney’s Fall 2012 show) and top shopping spots (the Paul Smith outlet in London is one of his favourites), and spends time flipping through men’s fashion magazines while waiting in airport lounges. “I keep buying them because I want to be up to date on trends,” he says, noting that he enjoys going to Montreal Fashion Week and is impressed with the collections of hometown designer Philippe Dubuc. “I love to dress up, and I don’t have too many occasions for that. When I do, I like to do it well. I remember really liking Shia LaBeouf’s look in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. It was really clean-cut. The hair, the three-piece suits and the shoes—that, to me, was great.”

Tapping into Despatie’s celebrity status in the Canadian diving arena, Gillette recently chose him—along with 23 other Olympians from 18 countries—to be an ambassador for the brand. “Obviously I’m in chlorine a lot and I have to take care of my skin, so these products are important to me,” he says of the body wash and shaving gel he uses during his grooming routine. “Taking care of myself is something I’m pretty conscious of.”

Aside from manscaping and training, Despatie is a consummate ritualist. Chapters in his life are recorded in tattoos. After his first Summer Games in Sydney, he had his back inked with a maple leaf and the Olympic rings. A diamond on his inner left arm was later added in solidarity with four diving friends, and a deck of cards with his astrological sign—Gemini—on his right forearm reminds him of the spontaneity of his sport. The birth dates of his father (who manages his career), mother, grandmother and sister are written on his rib cage. His left forearm reads, “You will never walk alone” and “Vive tranquillo il villanel con poco,” an Italian proverb that translates to “He who lives in tranquility can live with very little.”

The demands of training mean that, for now, Despatie isn’t in a relationship. “I’ve dated girls who were looking for more than I could give them,” he says. “I can’t give as much as relationships demand of me…but I always make that clear from the beginning so that there’s no confusion.”

For now, Despatie appears to be 100 per cent committed to his goal of winning a third Olympic medal. “When I do the things I love, I want them to be the best they can be,” he says. “I do strive for greatness and I’ve always had it in the back of my head that I can do better, no matter what. I want to get as close to perfection as I can.”


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