Asian Games: Slog and sacrifice behind China's graceful dives

Asian Games: Slog and sacrifice behind China's graceful dives
Chinese Pair of Shi Tingmao and Wu Minxia won gold for the Women's 3M Synchronised Springboard.

WU Minxia makes a living in the air. In the very short time from when her feet leave the diving board till her clasped hands hit the water she is judged. These are among the most beautiful seconds in sport.

Particularly because she has a partner, a diving double, and in the synchronised 3m springboard final yesterday, she and Shi Tingmao seem like under-dressed ballerinas performing the same somersaulting, twisting move.

Of course, they won. Because Wu wins everything. In this particular synchronised event, she has three Olympic golds, six world championship golds and now two Asian Games golds.

Of course, this pair comes from China because no one dives like China. At the last Asian Games, they won all 10 golds. At the 2012 Olympics, six of eight golds. This is barely a competition any more, it is an exhibition.

In the stands, Singapore's Mark Lee, who won synchronised silver with his twin Timothy at the 2013 SEA Games, is spectator and student. Late last year he trained in Guangzhou at a sports school and watched 8-10 year old kids do dive, after dive, after dive. "Aren't they tired?" he wondered.

It is greatness born of repetition, for as he says of hard-working Chinese divers, "if they're not training, they're resting, and waiting for their next training". Lee does at least 32 hours a week yet estimates they do more than 40. There is no respite, sometimes in ways that aren't quite so pretty.

In 2012, in a widely quoted story, Wu's father told a Shanghai paper that news of her mother's cancer and death of her grandparents was hidden from her. To speak of normal life and its tragedies was to distract from possible triumph. "We long ago realised that our daughter doesn't belong to us completely," he was quoted as saying. Sometimes the cost of a medal can seem too much.

Wu, built of long, lean muscle - Shi is shorter - rests at the very edge of her board, on her toes, with the uncommon stillness of a woman considering human flight. If divers are of the same build it adds to the aesthetic experience for they are supposed to be elegant xeroxes of each other.

But China, which mix and match divers from a wide pool of talent, says Lee, would have done their homework: perhaps these two, who have no gold from an Olympics together but one from a world championship, are so in tune that technique overshadows any disparity in size.

Grace in diving is a lovely camouflage which hides both a polished technique and a physical toughness. Lee, for instance, is on crutches after an accident while practising a dive in Singapore.

Occasionally divers will not land perfectly on the board while bouncing and must nevertheless take off: Lee was trying this when his leg slipped and was injured. Now, instead of competing, he watches.

You can tell platform divers after a few dives, he explains, by the redness of their palms from hitting water. The calm, blue liquid seems inviting till you fall from what is roughly the roof of a small building and collide with it.

Backs are often taped, shoulders, too, and almost every diver's ankle yesterday is strapped for they must pound the board to find the necessary height for take-off. These are no flights purely of fancy.

Wu and Shi have the poise of the prepared and the calm of confidence. Or as Lee says, "China divers just know what they're doing".

Then, Wu, the lead dance partner, utters a quiet command - "usually 'ready, go'," explains Lee - and both women start rocking and rising. Synchronised diving at its best is the turning of two disparate athletes into mid-air twins of technique and timing.

But, having chosen a dive that both divers are relatively good at, you have to, says Lee, "be in tune with yourself first". Do your own best dive. And hope your partner does too.

Lee wished he was competing alongside his partner, Timothy, for having been ranked, he says, third-best among Asian nations in a July World Cup, they had a chance. Now he will watch Timothy in individual events tomorrow even as yesterday he cheered on the Singaporeans Fong Kay Yian and Myra Lee who came in sixth.

But no one, whatever their nationality, can look away from Wu and Shi. Once in the air each will probably look for a spot in the water while tumbling, for the spot is their destination, their orientation and what they are aiming at.

Once in flight, they will try to be aerial mimics, attempting to reach the same height, rotate as fast as the other, unfold at the same time, enter the water together.

They win easily by 30.90 points from the Malaysians. And it is a good thing, you think, that the competition is indoors. For even while they are not quite perfect, so mesmerising is this flight of the two Chinese that the birds of Korea might well be envious.

It is greatness born of repetition, for as he says of hard-working Chinese divers, "if they're not training, they're resting, and waiting for their next training".

This article was first published on September 30, 2014.
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