Springboard to fame for little Chow: For a lucky few Chinese children, diving can hold the key to the good life, writes Teresa Poole in Canton

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The Independent Online
CHOW, a diminutive seven-year-old, was too terrified to talk to an inquisitive foreigner - but quite fearless when it came to leaping off the 21ft diving board.

Each day he could be found at the public swimming pool in Yue Xiu park in central Canton. Time after time, he climbed the steps to one of the diving platforms, and fell effortlessly in a simple dive into the pool below. Exchanging few words with his fellow child divers, and with an expression of serious intent on his face the whole time, he would climb back out of the pool and up those steps again, under the watchful eye of the coach, Huang Xiu Ni.

In a normal daily training session, Little Chow performs up to 80 dives.

The brilliance of China's divers dazzled the world at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. And none more than Fu Mingxia, gold medallist - at just 13 years old. But to reach that level of perfection at such an age, the rigorous training must start very young. According to Xu Yiming, China's national diving coach: 'Seven to eight is the best age to start with divers.'

Mrs Huang, a member of China's national diving team in 1963, has been a diving coach since 1972. In those days, training started at about 12, but this is now considered rather late in the day. Each year, usually in the summer, the coaches go to the schools and choose the promising children, mostly seven- and eight-year-olds. 'They are usually chosen from their body quality and shape. As a diver, you should be slim, but you cannot be very tall. And you need strength, and speed and to be supple. Sometimes when we choose them, they can't even swim. And sometimes we let them go, if they do not have the talent,' said Mrs Huang.

Her classes, which are free for the families, are held after school until about 7pm. 'We ask them to come every day. Usually they cannot do that because of other lessons,' she said. Looking up, she suddenly called out 'Keep your feet pointed,' at one of the dozen or so children of various ages who had turned up that day. The atmosphere was relaxed. And, as evening arrived, several parents turned up.

This is the first stage in the quest to produce Olympic medallists. 'We in China have numerous schools like this, and numerous students. So finally we will find one or two best ones to be trained,' said Mrs Huang. It is usually clear within three years if a child has real talent. The exceptional students are picked out at the main provincial and national competitions to transfer to specialist sports schools. Some children, like Fu Mingxia, also switch to diving from gymnastics which they may have started as young as four. The finest students of all then move to the national training schools in the major cities. Are the little divers ever afraid? 'Of course, at first they are afraid. But we find some way to make them not feel afraid,' said Mrs Huang. Very soon it is considered a treat to be allowed to jump from the 30ft board, she said.

'Of course they have less time to play with their friends. So that is why sometimes, during the training, we arrange games to play.' Do these serious little athletes actually enjoy it? 'Of course, they love diving. Because for these children, they are the ones we have chosen from the hundreds of children who wanted to come here to be trained.'

But Mrs Huang admits that the training is very repetitive. 'Diving is a very dull business for training. There is no team. Here they just practise diving, again and again.'

Little Chow started gymnastics when he was five and switched to diving last summer. His mother, Chow Zi Wen, a self-employed businesswoman, said bringing him to class was inconvenient for her but it was worth it for the child's sake. Excelling at sport in China is a way out of poverty. Those who reach the top are swamped with gifts, money, and prestige.

Mrs Huang has trained two famous female divers, Chen Xiao Xia and Wu pei Rong. 'I think diving is a sport event which is suitable for the Chinese because it just needs someone to be brave, skilful and have a good ability for self control. For other events, like football, basketball, you need strength and a big figure. But diving is different. You can start with a baby and train them to have all the (necessary) characteristics.'

And if any of Mrs Huang's class prove exceptionally promising, they should be reaching their peak just in time for the 2000 Olympics, for which Peking would dearly love to be chosen as host.

(Photograph omitted)

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