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Karen Smith: My dream really did come true at Sydney 2000
SHARING an apartment with tennis superstars Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski and dining with the legendary Steve Redgrave and Matthew Pinsent as they prepared to row their way into the history books were all part of Karen Smith’s unforgettable Olympic experience.
At the turn of the century, the former Southend-on-Sea Diving Club member went from gruelling early morning sessions at the former Warrior Square swimming pool to stepping out in front of 17,000 people on the 3m springboard at Sydney’s sparkling aquatics centre.
And although she did not progress past the preliminary rounds, the 36-year-old says it was an experience which allowed her to live her dream.
“I will never forget the size of the crowd as I stepped onto the diving board for the first time,” she said.
“It was an electric atmosphere and bigger then I could ever have imagined.
“As a diver you spend so many hours training in a pool in anti-social hours with just a few team members and your coach.
“So to step into that type of arena and perform in front of 17,000 people just blows you away.
“The noise, the music, the TV, the flashing cameras – it was all perfect and really a dream come true.”
Karen previously lived in Shoeburyness and then Billericay before moving to Hong Kong in 2007 where she took up a role as head of sport for the English Schools Foundation.
She is one of three Southend divers who managed to reach the Olympics after training under experienced local coach Bill Clark.
She says it was a honour to receive her call-up, but her memories are of so much more than just competing.
She said: “Sydney was great, it had such a relaxed party feel and everyone was very welcoming and friendly.
“The village was surreal: We woke each day to see the Olympic flame over the stadium, watched TV in the afternoons with Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski, who shared our apartment, and slept each night under specially designed Olympic duvets.
“Our rooms had pictures and words of good luck from local school children, which I have kept to this day.
“And the organisers had put a workable red London telephone box just outside our house just to make us feel at home!
“It was the small, thoughtful touches like that to make us feel welcomed which really made it so special.”
The sight of towering gold-medal winning heavyweight boxer Audley Harrison receiving a round of spontaneous applause from fellow GB team members as he returned to the village was also a stand-out moment for Karen.
She said: “He certainly had presence and when he walked back into the village just as we gathering to go to the closing ceremony, everyone parted and clapped him all the way to his front door.
“There was such strong camaraderie and it really did make me feel supported and very much a part of a team.
“I also remember watching the coxless four win gold and feeling more nervous for them that morning than I did for my own event.
“There was so much pressure on Steve Redgrave and Matthew Pinsent.
“So it was fantastic to see them walking around the village the week before, dining with us and preparing for the big race.
“Having those type of performers around you is truly inspirational.
“And to watch them make history in front of your eyes is something that makes the Olympics so very special for every athlete that competes.”
Karen says her personal highlights were getting to visit the Queen at Buckingham Palace after the Games, and also watching close friend Laura Wilkinson win gold for the USA on the 10m platform.
But Karen watched that event with a small pang of envy because it was the 10m platform in which she specialized, and not the 3m springboard competition she was called up for.
She performed a front dive, a back dive, a reverse dive, an inward dive and a twisting dive and finished 31st out of 44 in a competition in which China’s Fu Mingxai took gold after an epic battle with compatriot Guo Jingjing.
Karen went on to claim a fourth-placed finish at the Commonwealth Games in Manchester, but she says that despite not competing in her strongest discipline at the Olympics, it was an invaluable experience.
She said: “I was over the moon to be selected for Sydney.
“And whilst I had also wanted to be there on 10m, like many things in sport that wasn’t to be.
“But those Games were life changing for me in many ways. It opened my eyes to so many possibilities and allowed to me to believe that anything was possible.
“Every athlete suffers knock backs and massive disappointments during their career.
“But making the Games gave me a huge amount of confidence and a very strong belief that, with the right determination, there are no boundaries in life.
“It made all the hours of training and tears of frustration when things don’t go your way, so worth while.
“It is a very special memory and experience that will stay with me all my life.”