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July 28, 2011

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Dive. Dive. Dive.

CHINA'S conquest of world diving cannot be duplicated by the US and other countries with a strong culture of individuality and no state-run sports system, says the Chinese coach of the US Diving Team. Ma Yue learns more.

As China dominates the diving pool, winning all 10 golds on offer at the FINA World Championships in Shanghai in the past week, its diving coaches are much in demand across the world. The United States, Australia, Mexico and Canada have all put their faith in Chinese coaches, but they haven't come close to China's success.

Including the newly collected 10 golds at the 14th FINA meet, China has won 56 golds in world championships since 1982, compared with the combined total of 34 golds for all other nations put together. At the FINA competition, David Boudia collected the only US diving medal by placing second in the men's 10-meter platform.

Li Hongping, who became China's first male diving champion in 1981, has been working and training divers in the United States for 26 years, since 1985. He is one of around 10 Chinese diving coaches in the US today, he believes.

Today Li coaches the US Diving Team.

Li has often spoken about the differences between the Chinese state-run sports training system and the arrangements in the US and other countries. At most, he says, divers, physical trainers, physicians, psychologists, nutritionists and others were brought together in 2005 to train for four years for the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing and supported by the US Olympic Committee. After the games, everyone dispersed.

In Beijing, neither the US men's nor women's teams won diving medals. China won 11 medals, including seven golds.

Li tells Shanghai Daily in an interview that training arrangements for divers in the US and China are worlds apart.

Li and his compatriots introduced more advanced training and managing methods in the States, but that wasn't enough. There has been progress, but no breakthrough. He expects that state of affairs to continue for a long time.

"China takes diving as a serious profession, while most US divers started it as a hobby or part-time sport," Li says. "China has an unbeatable state-run system. Divers with the best bodies and best physical condition are selected and brought together for intensive and time-consuming training. Compared with them, US divers are amateurs who have spare time for study, work and socializing."

The big difference in systems leads to problems in the US such as weak sponsorship, lack of proper training venues and facilities, he says.

"Chinese diving teams have financial support from the government thanks to the state-run system, while most US divers pay to learn diving in clubs owned by universities. Chinese divers have to observe a highly disciplined lifestyle, while to their US counterparts, passion and their love of diving is the most important motivation."

Two of the 14 athletes on the US team in Shanghai this year are semi-professional and are supported by the US Olympic Committee and paid US$1,500 per month; the other 12 are all from colleges and diving clubs.

China's facilities are the most advanced in the world, "but in the US, we have to rent places for training and many are of 1980s standard. Training time cannot be guaranteed," he says. "To Americans, being able to participate is what matters most," says Li. "A medal on the international stage is like icing on the cake."

In general, US college divers train around 20 hours a week, while their Chinese counterparts train for around 40, he notes. "One year's training of a Chinese athlete equals 10 years' training of an American - good quality comes from large quantity.

"There's no secret (in diving training). It's a matter of whether people are willing to spend that much time and effort."

"Consistency is US diver's weakness," says Li, "and that is directly caused by lack of training."

Diving is a combination of beauty and power, he says.

"To be frank, US athletes have better body shape. They have more advantage than Chinese divers if they can do their best. However, I can't see any change in the near future. It may take an era."

Russia, Australia, Canada and Mexico have been making breakthroughs in diving, which Li attributes largely to their Chinese coaches.

Tong Hui has been coaching the Australian national team since 2001. Aussie Matthew Mitcham won the 2008 Olympic gold in men's 10m platform. Chantelle Newbery beat China's Lao Lishi in the 2004 Athens Olympics for the gold in the women's 10m platform. Both divers were coached by Tong.

Mexico's "diving queen" Paola Espinosa, who won a bronze in the 10m platform in Shanghai, is trained by Chinese coach Ma Jin. Espinosa edged out China's Chen Ruolin for the title at the Rome World Championships in 2009.

Emilie Heymans of Canada coached by China's Li Yihua, paired Jennifer Abel to win the silver medal for women's 3m springboard synchro in the Shanghai championship.

Britain's Thomas Daley was first spotted by a Chinese coach Chen Wen. He won the men's 10m platform at the age of 15 in the 2009 World Championships and the British diving team is pinning its hopes on Daley for the Summer Games in London in 2012.

Apart from diving, a handful of Chinese coaches are working with foreign national teams, especially in sports where China is dominant or very strong.

Former Chinese volleyball striker Lang Ping led the US women's team to defeat China in the Beijing Olympic Games. The US women's gymnastics team coach Qiao Liang of China helped Shawn Johnson to become the all-arounder in the Beijing Olympics. Malaysian badminton ace Lee Chong Wei was coached by Li Mao, who is now taking over as Indonesia's national singles coach.

The trend of foreign teams hiring Chinese coaches looks set to continue over the long term.


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