Yona Knight-Wisdom: Writing history and breaking stereotypes
Jamaican diver Yona Knight-Wisdom is something of an anomaly in his sport.
As the Leeds-born athlete says himself, he is almost two metres tall, is a ‘heavy diver’ and he’s black.
That isn’t something you see very often.
“Everything about it is against the sport of diving,” explained the 24-year-old.
“If you watch diving you see a lot of short people that are very strong. That means they can spin very fast in the air whilst jumping pretty high.
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“They can do some very difficult dives whilst also making very little splash.
“From the stereotype point of view, the stereotype is that black people can’t swim.
“To see a black person in a swimming event, let alone a diving event, is very uncommon.
“Being tall and being heavy doesn’t work for diving.”
Going against the culture
Despite what stereotypes might say, Yona already has one Olympic appearance under his belt at Rio 2016.
In doing so he fulfilled a dream that first emerged as a nine-year-old at a swimming pool in Leeds.
But he is also writing his own history for Jamaica. During the FINA Diving World Cup in 2016 he finished second in the 3m men’s springboard event.
It was Jamaica’s first medal in a world diving competition. That helped him qualify for the Rio 2016 where he became the first Jamaican – and first athlete representing a Caribbean island – to compete in a diving event at the Olympics.
Despite what he has achieved in the sport then, why do we still see so few black athletes in swimming events?
“I think it’s more of a cultural thing,” Yona said.
“Culturally, if you’re black growing up, from an American point of view you play basketball, you play American football, or you sprint.
“In Jamaica, you sprint.
“In England you probably play football or you play rugby. You don’t often go into aquatic sports.
“Just culturally it’s not a thing and you don’t have as many role models to look up to.
“You don’t have that natural person to inspire you to get into that kind of sport – because of the culture and because of what people around you do.
“When I started diving, when I was younger, there was no one from my area where I grew up that did diving.
“It just wasn’t a thing, so it was very unusual for me to be doing diving especially when they were going out, playing football and things like that.
“Not many people would actually commit to it because they’d want to hang out with their friends.
“But I found so much enjoyment in diving that it was just natural for me, even though it wasn’t the culturally normal thing for me to do.”
“I don’t think I would still be diving now”
Listening to the diver speak, the Yorkshire accent is unmistakeable.
Yet if Yona hadn’t opted to represent Jamaica – his father’s country – things could have been very different.
After frequent knock-backs from the British team without being selected he decided to go his own way.
“I almost felt like I had no other choice,” he said.
“This is what I was doing, and I was doing it to the best of my ability.
“Fortunately for me opportunities came about that allowed me to push it even further.
“If the whole Jamaica thing hadn’t been suggested in 2010 to 2011 I don’t think I would still be diving now.
“I think I would have really struggled to have made into the British squad.
“I don’t think I would have improved as much as I did between 2012 and 2016 because I wouldn’t have had the opportunities that I got with Jamaica to improve.
“I had a lot of bad results in those years, especially the World Championships in 2015.
“I dived terribly and that was the year before the Olympics.
“I was like ‘how am I going to make it to the Olympics when I’m diving this bad?’
“I was so far out.”
The push he needed to switch countries actually came back in 2011.
He had dived remarkably well at the junior elite nationals while still trying to be picked by Great Britain – winning a silver on the 1m springboard for good measure.
Yona was in contention for the junior Europeans, except he wasn’t picked.
“It was that that made me realise I had to take the Jamaican opportunity,” he explained.
“I heard later on that my coach actually recommended them to not select me because he believed so much in Jamaica working.
“I would have had to wait a year.
“But there were so many times where I didn’t make it into a team, or I was watching my friends abroad competing, and I was sat there thinking ‘is this really for me, am I good enough for this?’
“‘Can I continue this realistically? Should I pack it in now and try and do something else?’
“Those thoughts never lasted too long.
“I was like ‘I’ll just go back to training and try and work harder.’”
“No-one really cares what you do”
After fulfilling his Olympic dream in Brazil, Yona is currently focused on next year’s 2020 Games in Tokyo.
But despite achieving that childhood dream things have been far from easy for the diver, who has now relocated to Edinburgh.
Much of his time has been spent trying to understand himself and also learing one of the most important lessons out there.
“This has been the journey I have been on for the last three years since the Olympic Games,” he explained.
“I had a very strange conversation with Jack Laugher, who won Olympic gold in the 3m synchro and a silver in the individual.
“He had the most extraordinary Olympics ever and he told me that he always thought that once you win an Olympic gold medal you get £1million and life is easy.
“But even his life has been difficult since the Olympic Games – it’s not been straight-forward whatsoever.
“That put things into perspective for me and I’ve been trying to understand myself a lot.
“I had expectations coming off the back of an Olympic Games, which were not real.
“What actually happened wasn’t how I expected it to turn out.
“I got back from Rio and spent a week doing absolutely nothing.
“I spent most of the day in bed, playing on my phone, but I thought I would be seeing so many people.
“I thought everyone would be congratulating me, there would be parties for me and I just thought all these crazy things.
“But it didn’t happen, and it took me a long time to understand that’s not how it worked.
“In the years since then I’ve been on a journey trying to understand that no-one really cares what you do.
“There are so many people on this planet. What you do as a person – there’s probably about three people that care about it.
“That’s probably your best friend and your parents.
“There’s not that many more people because they all have their own problems to deal with and everyone has their own life to get on with.
“They go forward and they’ll give you one day of celebration but that’s it. You can’t allow yourself to bask in those moments for too long.
“Enjoy it – by all means enjoy it as much as you can – but you can’t just rest on those moments.
“Times change and life goes on quickly.”
Words and interview: Alasdair Hooper
Image credits: With thanks to Yona Knight-Wisdom
All music in this episode is courtesy of Otis McDonald.
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