Back in Sync
Can U.S. divers make a return to the podium? The team's best hope is a pair of teenagers with contrasting styles
IN LATE FEBRUARY—three days before competition commenced at the pre-Olympic World Cup meet—a new generation of U.S. divers strolled into the Water Cube, the futuristic venue for aquatics events at the Beijing Games this summer. They took out their cameras and began snapping photos, awed by the structure's space-age design. David Boudia, 19, and Thomas Finchum, 18, scaled the stairs of the 10-meter platform, from which the vaunted Chinese team will dive and likely conquer the competition in August. "It's so big and spacious," said Haley Ishimatsu, one of four 15-year-olds on the U.S. roster. "It makes you feel small and insignificant."
In 2004 insignificant pretty much summed up U.S. diving: No American made the podium at the Games for the first time since 1912. By contrast Chinese entries have won at least one medal in all 20 individual events since '88, including 14 golds. "To improve," says Guo Jingjing, the defending champion in the women's three-meter springboard, "the Americans should learn to be Chinese."
USA Diving followed the Chinese model when it created a training hub in Indianapolis in January 2005 and tapped Wenbo Chen, a former national team coach in his native China, and John Wingfield to run it. "The top countries were using some sort of centralized model," Wingfield says. "We had some young talent, but we needed to reverse our declining results."
The coaches invited nine promising young divers, who then balanced home schooling with 40 hours of training each week. A dozen other national-team veterans—including Laura Wilkinson, the 2000 Olympic 10-meter platform champ, and springboard specialist Troy Dumais, who has won 25 national titles—attended three training camps a year, during which there were intrasquad meets simulating international competition, with judges, announcers and extended waits between dives. That preparation is starting to pay off. "I've seen as many good performances from the U.S. in the last three years as I saw from 1988 to 2004," says Chen.
Along with Wilkinson, the pairing of Boudia and Finchum in the synchronized 10-meter platform event is the U.S.'s best medal hope. (The two are also outside contenders to reach the podium in individual platform, having finished one-two at the last six major national competitions.) The tandem took silver last weekend at the USA Diving Grand Prix in Fort Lauderdale, and Boudia finished fourth in the individual 10-meter.
The powerful Boudia's six-dive repertoire has a combined degree of difficulty of 21.0, the highest in the world, and his dizzying signature front 4 1/2 tuck looks like an eggbeater on hyperspeed. Finchum, who learned to dive by jumping off a friend's houseboat, has a balletic approach not seen from a U.S. diver since Greg Louganis. He narrowly missed making the team in '04 and since then has endured lower-back strain while growing nearly a foot, to 6'1". "I want people to want to dive like me," Finchum says, "to appreciate the beauty of the sport."
Given their inexperience—other up-and-comers include Ishimatsu and Mary Beth Dunnichay, 15, in the women's synchro—American divers still face a high degree of difficulty in Beijing. They probably won't peak until 2012, but in the meantime they should at least help the U.S. team end its medal drought.
ONLY AT SI.COM More Olympics coverage from Brian Cazeneuve.
1. ALLYSON FELIX, U.S. (right)
The world champion in the 200 meters ran the year's best times in both the 100 (10.93 seconds) and 400 (49.83) at the Qatar Super Grand Prix last weekend, reaffirming her status as the planet's most versatile sprinter.
2. VANESSA FERNANDES, PORTUGAL
The Olympic favorite won her fifth consecutive European triathlon in Lisbon last Saturday. Fernandes, 22, finished in 2:05:46—39 seconds ahead of Nadia Cortassa of Italy.
3. MARK WARKENTIN, U.S.
The swimmer won silver in the 25-kilometer race at the World Open Water Championships in Seville, Spain, coming in a half second behind Maarten Van Der Weijden of the Netherlands.
HEINZ KLUETMEIER (BOUDIA AND FINCHUM)
HIGH MARK Finchum (left) and Boudia took silver in the 10-meter at the Grand Prix.
KARIM JAAFAR/AFP/GETTY IMAGES (FELIX)