Early starts and green veg: how China became diving greats

Alice PHILIPSON
Zhang Jiaqi, 14, is part of China's incredible diving medal machine

Platefuls of green veg, no sleeping in and barely an afternoon to hang out with friends -- life for China's 14-year-old Asian Games diving champion Zhang Jiaqi doesn't seem like much fun.

Zhang, who secured victory in the synchronised 10 metre platform in Jakarta, is now part of China's extraordinary diving history that has seen them win every Asiad gold going they first joined the Games in 1974.

But there is no secret to their colossal success, the Chinese divers say -- their enormous medal haul is simply the result of lots of hard work.

"The reason why the Chinese team is so good is that we work really hard. Harder than any other country in the world," said Si Yajie, 19.

"We have to get up very early every day and train all day," added Si, a two-time Asian Games champion and Olympic silver medallist.

The elite squad of Chinese divers, who all live together at state-run facilities in Beijing, rise at 6.00 am every day apart from Sunday, their 'rest' day.

Still, no day is completely wasted and the divers are put through their paces from 9.00-11:00 am before they head off for some free time.

The girls and women also face huge pressure to keep their weight down to limit splash after a dive, and what they eat is decided by their coaches -- usually a Chinese-style dish with lean meat and lots of green vegetables.

- It's worth it for gold -

Korea's Woo Ha-ram -- who finished behind a Chinese one-two in the men's one metre springboard in Jakarta -- puts the success of his rivals down to the early age at which they start, usually three or four years old.

"They have schools for athletes so they train harder, and by the time they are teenagers they are already so good," the 20-year-old told AFP.

It's not only in the Asian Games that China dominates.

Since Olympic diving grew to eight events in 2000, they have never won less than five golds, and in 2008 and 2016 they won seven.

Although they have yet to complete the first eight-title sweep, their success compares with the US divers who won every Olympic title between 1928 and 1952, when only four events were contested.

Diving great Wu Minxia, who at the Rio Games became the first person with five diving Olympic golds, made clear in the run-up to London 2012 that it wasn't a particularly glamorous life.

"For people like us who live in a small circle, we meet people from similar backgrounds and have very simple lives," she said.

Wang Han, 27, who notched up another comfortable victory for China in Jakarta in the women's one metre springboard, made it clear not much has changed since Wu's heyday.

"The Chinese team make more effort in training," she said, when asked about her nation's dominance.

"And I feel it (diving) is our tradition," added Wang who, unusually for the Chinese team, did not begin diving until the age of 10.

But for Zhang, isn't it tough missing out on being a normal teenager?

"When you get a gold medal, it's worth it," she said.