A decade ago, before the Chinese diving team began competing abroad, Xu Yiming, the team's coach, would always take his video camera along on his trips to international meets. He would then return to Beijing with tapes to show his talented but inexperienced athletes.
In 1982 springboarder Tan Liangde, then 16, joined the national team, and he hoarded Xu's tapes of Greg Louganis. "Those films helped greatly because Louganis's technique is so classic," said Tan. "My diving's not nearly as formal. I wanted to learn the right way."
Tan first competed against the master at the FINA World Cup in '83 and was beaten. Tan took the silver medal in springboard at the L.A. Summer Games the following year; Louganis won the gold. They kept squaring off, and Louganis kept winning. As he headed into this Olympic year, Louganis, since 1982, had won 18 straight international springboard competitions. At the Australia Day International in Canberra in January, he made it 19.
The next week, at the Drake Bicentennial International meet in Sydney, Australia, however, Tan scored an astonishing 715.14 points in the three-meter springboard, finally beating the man who had unknowingly been his tutor. And on Sunday, at the McDonald's International meet in Boca Raton, Fla., Tan again scored more than 700—712.29, to be exact—and topped Louganis for the second time in a row in the three-meter.
"Louganis didn't dive his best," Tan said graciously. Then he added, "I have more confidence than before, and Louganis is not unbeatable anymore."
All these things are true. A ganglion cyst in Louganis's left wrist has disrupted his training since last fall, and at the McDonald's he didn't dive as well as he can. But it's also true that Tan and his teammates have added bravado to their talent and are now a fearsome bunch.
It seems strange to call the Chinese diving team fearsome—they're so small, and they smile so easily. But consider how they laid waste the 23-country field at the four-day McDonald's meet. After conceding the non-Olympic one-meter competitions to Louganis and to Megan Neyer of Boca Raton, the Chinese team swept the four events that will be contested in Seoul this fall. They finished first and third in the men's three-meter springboard, first and second in the women's three-meter, first in the men's 10-meter platform, first and third in the women's. But don't let that solitary medal in men's platform fool you. China's top platform diver, two-time World Cup champ Tong Hui, stayed home to nurse a minor injury.
As the women's platform competition began on Saturday, attention was focused on last year's McDonald's champion, Elena Miroshina, 13, of the Soviet Union. The 4'9½", 75-pound Miroshina is a wonder to watch as she tumbles 10 meters through the air and then...well, she doesn't enter the water, she slips beneath its surface. The Soviet girl led by 11.64 points after the fourth round.
But then came 14-year-old Chen Yingjian, all 5 feet, 77 pounds of her. She, too, is whisper-quiet on her entries, and she has iron nerves. "I have no fear," Chen said. When Miroshina blew an inward 3½ tuck, Chen seized the lead and never let go.
When the platform medalists met the press, Miroshina and Chen, great pals of a week's standing, shared a single chair and still didn't fill it. These tiny girls have revolutionized their sport, much as small acrobats have changed gymnastics and pairs skating. Wendy Williams, 20, who finished fifth in the platform competition, is a slender 5'7", but as she sat near Miroshina and Chen she looked like Gulliver among the Lilliputians.
"I'm young for American diving, but I get to these meets and I feel old," said Williams, a member of the U.S. national team since 1984. "I hate to see diving going the way of gymnastics, where you peak at 14, and at 15 you're over the hill. I've always believed that with maturity comes grace.
"But the trend is to focus on the entry. It's the last thing the judges see, and they go, 'Wow! I don't believe it!' We call it getting paid. These kids get paid for their entries."
Chen was asked at the press conference if the U.S. women would win a platform medal at Seoul. "It'll be difficult," she said.
Same goes for springboard. China's three-meter marvel, Gao Min, is one of diving's great fist pumpers. "I do get excited," she said. "I don't try to control it. That's just me." And Gao is often excited, because she never misses a dive. In April she became the first woman ever to score 600 in springboard in international competition. "It's like [Roger] Bannister's breaking the four-minute mile," said U.S. Olympic team coach Ron O'Brien. Two weeks ago Gao did it again. Now she has done it three times—her 600.15 points on Sunday were 54.75 ahead of teammate Li Qing.
"I wasn't happy with my entries," said Gao. "Too much splash." Asked if she had new goals, she answered, "Yes, 610." Asked whom she considers her competition, she answered, "I'm now competing with myself." She was smiling when she said all that.
With Louganis forgoing the men's platform because of his injured wrist, Xiong Ni, 14, grabbed the spotlight by displaying the phenomenal somersaulting ability that is the hallmark of his nation's diving and the grit that is new to the Chinese team.
"They've always had that tremendous physical ability, they spin so well," said Louganis. "But they had trouble competing when they first showed up in the early '80s. They used to beat us in practice and then fall apart in the meet. Now they know they belong with the best. Even the young ones have confidence."
As Xiong's performance testified, the Chinese choke is history. Xiong couldn't shake Matt Scoggin of the U.S., but he remained cool. In the last round Scoggin hit a back 3½ tuck and was awarded uniform 9's. Xiong needed five 9's to win, and he knew it. "I was 80 percent sure I could do it," he said. He leapt and started spinning, an inward 3½ tuck. "When I hit, I knew." He surfaced and gave a fist pump. Win he did, by 7.11 points.
Exciting as the Xiong-Scoggin matchup was, it was outshone by the competition between Louganis and Tan. Off the three-meter springboard, Louganis executed unspectacular compulsories and had to work hard to catch up to Tan. On his seventh dive Louganis nailed a forward 3½ pike and drew close. On his eighth, he nailed a back 2½ pike and drew one point ahead. Tan answered with an equally pretty 3½ pike to regain the lead.
Tan, like Xiong, resolutely refused to blink. Diving last in the final round, he spun through a silken inward 3½ tuck that earned him 87.72 points and pushed his total over the 700 mark. He had beaten Louganis by 15.
"If I do in Seoul what I'm able to do," said Tan, "I can give Greg a fight."
The fact is, America isn't the top dog in diving at the moment. And Greg Louganis is no longer unbeatable.
Tan (top) had the upper hand off the three-meter, but he and Louganis shook as equals afterward.
Flights of beauty by Chen (above) and Gao turned the head of at least one observer.