Chinese divers have come on strong in a hurry

Ancient Chinese riddle: How can no splash make big splash? Answer: Chinese divers who make no splash in the water are making a big splash in world competition.

This riddle is true today -- to the befuddlement of the diving community worldwide.

Ever since divers from the People's Republic of China first bounced into the spotlight of international diving competition two years ago with their splashes entries into the water and their precision form, they have brought with them not merely a splash, but a virtual tidal wave, of upsets.

To date, they have won gold medals at the 1979 World University Games in Mexico, a US-China dual meet held in Foochow, China, last August featuring the US Olympic team, and at a London meet last fall, which included both American and Soviet competitors.

Recently, the short-in-stature, short-on-international-competition, but tall-on-talent team of 10 Chinese divers spent a month in the US giving exhibitions and competing against America's top divers.

Success stories like that of the Chinese athletes just aren't supposed to happen. Years of disciplined training and international exposure are the typical prerequisites before divers become serious contenders in world- class competitions.

Yet the Chinese divers -- particularly the women -- have proved that theory to be all wet. They are fierce competitors. Most significantly, they have perfected the technique of "ripping" -- causing almost no splash on entering the water and thereby creating a sound like a sheet ripping.

The Chinese divers are "quick, they're tight, and they're doing the really tough dives," says Dick Kimball, diving coach at the University of Michigan and coach of the US team that met the Chinese during their American tour. "They are very acrobatic," he adds, "which enables them to spin really fast. This is where their strength is. They don't twist all that well, and their position is not always perfect. But they're outstanding divers."

How have the Chinese managed to springboard themselves into the international spotlight so quickly? To some degree, the natural acrobatic skill and agility that have characterized the Chines for decades contribute to their diving prowess. "Physical education programs in China are oriented toward these acrobatic, gymnastic-like sports," says Kimball.

Combined with this natural ability is earnest, intense study of the sport. "Our coaches and divers watch many films and videotapes -- from the Olympics, from the United States, and from Soviet satellite photos," explains Xu Yi Ming, one of three coaches who accompanied the Chinese divers on their US circuit. "We also read many foreign articles and books," adds the serious, crew-cut-coifed coach.

Discipline is perhaps the key factor in the phenomenal success of the Chinese athletes. In addition to the film watching and book reading, the Chinese practice, practice, practice. "About 3 to 3 1/2 hours a day, with more on Sundays," was Xu's description of a typical diver's training day. Morning workouts generally include gymnastics, ballet, tumbling, and body training with weights. The divers do jumping exercises with weights to increase leg strength. Then in the afternoon, it's into the water for workouts on both 3-meter springboard and 10-meter platform.

This strict regimen is not relaxed at diving meets. While most divers reduce the length and number of workouts at important competitions, the Chinese continue their intense practice schedule. At The US-China dual meet in Columbus , Ohio, last year, the visiting Asian squad worked out at least twice a day. Their coaches sat close by at poolside, clapping excitedly for the good dives and criticizing the not-so-good ones. After practice, coaches and divers remained at the pool, watching and listening to their competitors' much briefer workout sessions.

Such discipline has been necessary to secure a spot for the Chinese among the top world divers. During China's Cultural Revolution and "gang of four" control in the late 1960s, all diving programs -- and nearly all competitive sports programs -- were halted.Sports competitions were regarded as symbols of capitalism and individual achievement, and consequently forbidden. A squad of US divers and swimmers visited the country in 1973 and encountered only a small, mediocre Chinese team. Competitive programs did not return until the early 1970 s, after Mao's death and the arrest of the gang of four.

The diving programs now available in china seem to more closely resemble American, rather than Soviet, systems of instruction. According to Xu, most divers begin training seriously when they are 11 or 12 years old. "They are selected to go to a sparetime [part-time] special school, like a 'club,'" he says. Unlike the Soviet atheletes, the Chinese do not move away from home to attend athletic schools. "The divers train with their own coaches in their own cities," Xu explains. "They are all students, and they are all very busy."

China's diving programs are evidently paying off for its divers. In less than two years, they have earned the respect, friendship, and admiration of the best divers and coaches in the world.As Kimball explains, some of the aura surrounding their success may be because they are the "new kids on the block." But in Olympic Games, world championships, and top international competitions to come, the Chinese divers certainly will be making a big splash.

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