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Jake Canuso: 'A tree saved my life in the tsunami'

Jake Canuso will be appearing in the semi-final of Splash! on ITV1 on Saturday after impressing the judges with his spectacular dive in the first episode. We caught up with him to talk about Tom Daley, his experience in the Indonesian tsunami and those swimming trunks..

Your pike somersault was one of the highlights of the first show. Have you got anything special planned for the semi-final?

"I was actually quite disappointed with my pike because I’d nailed it in training but then because I injured my nose I had to miss the last few practice sessions. When I did the dive it was two days after the accident and I was trying not to think about hitting the bottom again. I definitely want to go higher for the semi-final, but safety has to be a top priority. I know it’s a TV show but we have to remember that this is actually a very serious sport and you could seriously hurt yourself. I’ll definitely be diving from the top board if I make it to the final though.

What’s it like working with Tom?

"Oh it’s been amazing, he’s the sweetest guy ever. He’s so humble and really passionate about what he does. All the training that we’ve had he’s just fitting around his normal schedule, which is still six hours of training a day. He makes you do things you don’t want to do, but in a nice way! On the second day he told me to jump off the 7.5 metre board and gave me the belief that I could do it. With him at your side you feel calmer and more confident for your dive, which is important when it’s live!"

How are you with heights?

"Those boards are much higher than they look on TV! If you’re diving forward then you’re always looking where you’re going, but the minute you decide to do something ridiculous like I did, there’s a moment when you don’t know where you are. The spin gives you the extra speed as well, so it’s scary."

So we’ll be seeing those trunks of yours again then?

"Ha ha.. Yes you will. Someone was asking if I would go smaller for the semi-final but I don’t think that would be possible. I don’t think they’d stay on! There might be an accident with the underwater camera. I think they’ll be giving me a different colour in the semi. You feel really naked in those trunks though!"

You were in the Thailand when the tsunami hit on Boxing Day 2004, that must have been a terrifying experience?

"I was on holiday with my sister on a small island off the coast called Koh Phra Thong when it happened. I was on the beach when I saw the wave and I managed to run to the back of the beach and climb a tree. The tree survived the first wave and was then half ripped out, pinning me to the ground. It could have killed me but it also saved my life because it kept me close to the ground as the water washed all kind of the debris over my head. Everything was being smashed to pieces. It also stopped me getting dragged into the mangroves, which is where most people on the island died because they got trapped in their roots. "I went back a few years ago and it wasn’t there any more obviously, but that tree certainly saved my life."

So you were trapped underwater! Did you think you were going to die?

"It’s bizarre because you don’t think you’re going to die, I could just see everything above me whizzing past at such speed, as your air goes you start losing consciousness. I remember lying underneath the tree and seeing houses and other stuff going past me and seeing how blue the sky was and the sunlight, in a way it was quite tranquil. It became very peaceful and quiet, you do sense yourself going, your arms go out and you start floating as you lose consciousness. I can’t say that I saw a light, but it was a very surreal experience."

How did you escape?

"As the water started to drain back the current along the bottom became so strong that it ripped away the tree and I was pushed back to the surface and I landed back into this whirlpool of debris. Then the survival instinct kicks in and you’re trying desperately to grab hold of anything that’s floating. I remember hearing someone calling my name and I looked up and a Thai resort worker was in a tree nearby. He had climbed much higher than I had. When you hear your name you start to think about your family and friends and I started to think about my sister."

How did you find her?

"All I could think about what looking for her and I began to search frantically. My friend walked past me, he asked if I had seen his wife and I asked if he had seen my sister and we said no and went off in different directions. You pass people lying on the floor, you don’t know if they’re dead. I found my sister after about 40 minutes and it was such a relief. She was just standing there screaming, bleeding everywhere. I grabbed her and held her and she was just shouting ‘What was it?! What was it?!’ I was just trying to calm her down. She was screaming and screaming, she was in such shock, but I knew we needed to get to higher ground because she was badly injured, the back of her scalp was cut open. Then slowly people started gathering and climbing the hill. "There were all sorts of rumours going round. Some people said there were more waves coming and that they would be bigger, we didn’t know if it had happened all over he world? Were we the only people alive? We had no idea.what was going on. People started tying themselves to trees on top of the hill. It was crazy."

What happened next?

"We had to create this camp overnight with whatever we could find. There was one woman, who sadly lost her husband, but she’d been in war zones and she really held the group together. This was a woman who couldn’t find her husband at the time. Thousands of people were dead and missing... "Helicopters came to pick up the injured and then the next day speedboats picked up everyone else but a few of us stayed to try and find the people who were missing. We looked at body after body when they came in to see if we recognised them. They were swollen from the water, blackened by the sun, they didn’t look like human beings. We did find everyone except for one Scandinavian couple’s baby. We searched for days across the whole island looking through all the bodies, but we couldn’t find this baby.

Has Splash! helped you overcome what happened that day?

"Definitely. I didn’t go back into the water for two years after that. I don’t go in the pool much but when I started diving for this show, I was going deep under water and looking up again and it brought back all these memories. It’s helped me though because it’s reminded me of that day and made me think of it again. I wanted to ring people because there’s a group of about 15 of us who will be connected by our experiences for ever. Hopefully a couple of them will get to see the show!"