Chinese diver Fu Mingxia (born 1978) won the platform-diving world championship in 1991 at the tender age of 12, making her the youngest diving champ of all time. She also holds the notoriety of being the youngest Olympic-diving champion, having earned a gold at the 1992 Barcelona Games when she was just 13. Throughout the 1990s, Fu dominated the sport with her stunning repertoire of picture-perfect, yet extremely difficult dives. During the 2000 Olympics, held in Sydney, Australia, Fu won her fourth gold, joining Americans Pat McCormick and Greg Louganis as the world's only quadruple Olympic-diving champions. Fu's record speaks for itself—with four Olympic golds and one silver, she is clearly one of the best divers China has ever produced.
On the Beijing 2008 Olympic organizing committee website, Fu described diving as a one-second art. "It takes a diver only 1.7 seconds from the 10-meter-platform to the water surface down below. It requires you to fully display the beauty of the sport in only a second. It's very demanding, but I love the challenge."
Dove Before She Could Swim
Fu Mingxia (pronounced Foo Ming-shah) was born August 16, 1978, into a humble working-class family in the city of Wuhan, located along the Yangtze River in central China. Perhaps Fu's parents knew that she was a diamond in the rough when they named her Mingxia, which translates to "bright rays of tomorrow." Inspired by an older sister, Fu enrolled in gymnastics at a local sports school at the age of 5. From the beginning, it was clear Fu possessed natural athletic grace. Though she was just a child, Fu demonstrated remarkable poise and body control. The coaches, however, felt that she was not flexible enough to make it as a gymnast. Instead, they suggested she pursue diving, though Fu, only about seven years old at the time, could not swim.
"My father would teach me swimming after work by supporting me with his hand in the water," Fu told Washington Post writer Lena H. Sun. "When I began to practice diving, the coach would tie a rope around my waist during diving training so she could pull me up after each dive."
Fu easily made the transition from gymnast to springboard diver and before long was noticed by diving coach Yu Fen, who took Fu to Beijing in 1989 to train at a state-sponsored boarding school as a member of the state diving team. China prides itself in churning out athletic prodigies who can win international competitions and bolster the country's reputation. In China, it is common practice for children with athletic promise to be taken away from home at an early age to live at special sports schools where their talents can be refined. Fu was chosen for such a life. Because of her remarkable talents, she became a part of China's disciplined, but highly successful sports machine.
Once in Beijing, the young Fu began intensive training for the more difficult but dramatic platform-diving event. Coach Yu told the Washington Post that many kids who start as young as Fu are afraid to climb to the top of the 10-meter platform, which stands about 33 feet above the water. Fu was scared, too, but she faced her fear head-on, a skill that would help take her to the top of the sport.
Fu recalled her first trip to the top of the platform in an article posted on the Beijing 2008 Olympic organizing committee's website. "It was so high above the water! But we had a professional rule: a diver must leave the platform from the front; that means you have to dive. So I jumped. I was scared to death. My heart was about to come out of my body. But I did it."
Through a strenuous training program, Fu learned to set aside her fears and progressed quickly. Typical of Chinese children at sports schools, her days were highly structured and sheltered, containing little more than diving practice and schooling. Training sessions averaged four to five hours a day, seven days a week, with the occasional nine-hour day. At times, Fu practiced 100 dives a day. In time, she was gliding so close to the platform during her dives that her short hair often touched the end during her descent toward the water.
Fu was clearly on her way to becoming a world-class diver; however, there were drawbacks to the program. Once Fu went to Beijing, she pretty much lost contact with her parents. Fu was allowed visits home only twice a year. Her parents attended her diving competitions when they were close to her hometown of Wuhan. When Fu was competing near her home turf, she would scan the crowd in hopes of locating her parents. In time, however, they became almost unrecognizable. The only way Fu knew they had come to watch was because they would leave care packages for her in the locker room.
Won Olympic Gold at 13
In 1990, Fu made her international diving debut, capturing a gold at the U.S. Open and also at the Goodwill Games, held that summer in Seattle. Her daring dives from the top of the 10-meter platform transformed the teeny 12-year-old into a national treasure. However, with pressure mounting, Fu placed third at the Asian Games held in Beijing in the fall of 1990. Following the loss, she changed her routine, adding moves that were technically more difficult, but which she felt more comfortable performing.
Adding the more difficult moves probably helped her score more points in the long run because the more difficult dives yield higher points. Here is how the scoring works in diving competitions: Judges evaluate dives on several components, including the approach, takeoff, elevation, execution and entry. Dives are rated on a scale of zero to ten. In major competitions, there are typically five to seven judges. After judges determine their ratings, the highest and lowest scores are tossed out. To get the final score, the remaining scores are added. This number is then multiplied by the dive's degree of difficulty, which ranges from 1.0 for an easy dive to 2.9 for the more difficult maneuvers.
By 1991, Fu was talented enough to attend the diving world championships, held in Perth, Australia. The competition was intense, and Fu found herself in eighth place in the final round because she had failed a compulsory dive. Fu pulled herself together, however, and ended up with the title, beating out the Soviet Union's World Cup winner Elena Miroshina by nearly 25 points. At just 12 years old, Fu became the youngest international champ ever. It is a title she will hold forever because after the competition, swimming's national governing body changed the rules, requiring all competitors of international competitions to be at least 14 years old.
While Fu initially made her mark on the 10-meter platform, she also began competing on the three-meter springboard. In April 1992, she won the gold on the springboard at the Chinese international diving tournament in Shanghai.
Fu made her Olympic debut at the 1992 Games, held in Barcelona, Spain. During the competition, the five-foot-half-inch, 94.8-pound Fu used her youthful fearlessness to beat out older, more elegant competitors. Fu easily captured a gold in the platform competition. At 13, she was the youngest medal winner at the Olympics that year-and the second-youngest in the history of the Games. She also qualified as the youngest Olympic diving champion, a title she still holds.
Fu's success in her first Olympics drove her toward her second. In preparing for the 1996 Olympics, held in Atlanta, Fu trained seven hours a day, six days a week. Her only other activities included listening to music, watching television and getting massages. Fu's coaches drilled her hard, but she said she found comfort and peace from the physically and mentally straining regimen through music. The hard work paid off. Fu was in top form at the 1996 Olympics and shined on both the platform and springboard, taking gold in both events. She was the first woman in 36 years to win both events in a single Olympics.
Retired, then Staged a Comeback
Shortly after Atlanta, the triple-gold-medallist quit the sport and enrolled at Beijing's Tsinghua University to study management science. "I want to retire. I am already too old," she said at the time, according to the South China Morning Post. "It's like climbing a hill. When you reach the top, there is no way to go other than down." Fu also got involved in politics and in 1997 served as a delegate to the Communist Party's 15th Congress.
Fu spent about two years off the board. By 1998, however, Fu felt a tug toward returning to the sport and began diving with the university team. "Taking a break took the pressure off diving," she told Time' s Hannah Beech. "It made me realize that I loved the sport and that I could do it on my own terms."
On her own terms still meant a disciplined training schedule, but she reduced the number of hours per day down to five. Fu told Time that she found practicing just for the sake of practicing to be a pointless endeavor.
As a member of the university team, Fu competed in the 1999 World University Games in Palma, Spain, winning both the highboard and springboard titles. Less than a year back into it, she won silver at the Diving World Cup. Fu regained her spot on the national Olympic squad and also took up a new sport—three-meter synchronized diving—as she headed for the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia. Fu and her partner, Guo Jingjing, practiced together for less than six months, yet earned a silver. The Russian pair that beat them had trained together for years. After the synchronized diving event, Fu went on to compete on the springboard. She handily won a gold, nailing her final dive, a reverse one-and-a-half somersault, two-and-a-half twist for nines when eights would have been enough to beat out Guo, her teammate. With her four gold medals and one silver, Fu became one of the most decorated Olympic divers of all time.
Plunged into Marriage, Motherhood
After the Games in Sydney, Fu concentrated on her studies. In 2001, she met Hong Kong Financial Secretary Antony Leung, a popular government official. Born in 1952, the divorced Leung seemed an unlikely suitor. The press reported that the duo met at an awards banquet where he showed her how to play games on his palm pilot. They married within a year. A multi-millionaire, Leung owns properties in Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai, Hawaii, and Singapore. Some speculated that Fu was after his money, but Fu also makes plenty of money in advertising deals. For a time, Fu was Sprite's face in China and has also advertised for cosmetics firms, as well as the Chinese mobile phone company Shouxin. Reports have said that Fu is worth more than $3 million from her lucrative contracts. The couple had a daughter in February 2003.
Though Fu is no longer diving, she gave back to her country by helping as a member of the Beijing Olympic bid committee for the 2008 Olympics. Beijing won the bid, and Fu was excited that people from all over the world would see her country in 2008. She was to serve as an ambassador at the event. Fu has said that she hopes that by hosting the Olympics, people from all over the world will become reacquainted with China and recognize the great changes that have occurred in recent years. Her future plans include promoting diving, as well as other sports.
New York Times, May 4, 1992.
South China Morning Post, March 6, 1993; March 24, 2002.
Straits Times (Singapore), February 28, 2003.
Washington Post, May 22, 1991.
"Fu Mingxia," Time,http://www.time.com/time/asia/magazine/2000/0911/olys.mingxia.html (November 30, 2003).
"Fu Mingxia, the Diving Queen," Official Website of the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Games of the XXIX Olympiad, http://184.108.40.206/eolympic/ydy/mdmm/mdmm_fmx.htm (December 10, 2003).
Chinese diver Fu Mingxia had international success at such a young age that she prompted world diving
officials to create rules requiring divers to be fourteen before they could appear in major competitions. At her first Olympic appearance in 1992, she was only thirteen, but was credited with advancing the difficulty of dives being performed in competitions. Mingxia went on to become the first female diver to win gold medals at three consecutive Olympics, where she has competed in ten-meter platform, three-meter springboard, and three-meter synchronized diving events. Known as the Queen of Diving in her homeland, her fans have watched her change from a slim, giggling child into a sophisticated, womanly figure. Following the 1996 Olympics, she suffered from burnout and temporarily left the sport to begin studying economics, but returned in time to compete in the 2000 Olympics. Now retired from diving, Mingxia has become wealthy appearing in advertisements. She is also serving on China's 2008 Olympic Bid Committee.
Mingxia was born in 1978 in Wuhan, Hubei province, China. She was not considered flexible enough for gymnastics, which she had begun learning as a pre-schooler, and was introduced to diving at age seven. Her training began before she knew how to swim, causing her coach to tie a rope around her waist so that she could be pulled from the water. Her father would teach her how to swim after work. Mingxia was sent away to diving school in Beijing at age nine. After the move she rarely saw her parents, a factory worker and an accountant. The training program was extremely rigorous. Diving students practiced up to ten hours per day, seven days a week, while also going to school. Mingxia was very scared when first learning platform diving, but the rules forbid her from climbing back down the steps.
Despite Mingxia's initial fears, she soon developed exceptional skills. In 1990 she began diving in international competitions. That year she won the Alamo Invitational at age eleven; in the Goodwill Games, she won a gold medal in platform diving. When she placed third in the 1990 Asian Games, Mingxia revised her routines and came back even stronger. In 1991 she became the youngest woman to win gold at the World Championships and youngest world champion ever in aquatic sports. This led diving's international governing body to change their regulations, requiring divers to be fourteen to compete in the World Cup, World Championships, and Olympics. Thus, Mingxia was prohibited from competing in the 1991 World Cup, but a loophole allowed her to dive in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona.
A slim thirteen-year-old who was known to brush the platform with her closely-cut hair, Mingxia performed more difficult dives than were normally seen when she appeared at the 1992 Olympics. Winning gold in the ten-meter event, she became the youngest platform diver to win an Olympic gold medal. Her future successes, however, would be hard won. The years of training between Barcelona and the 1996 games in Atlanta, Georgia were very difficult for Mingxia. She had considerable trouble keeping slim, a great advantage in diving, after she was fifteen and remembers vividly feeling hungry all the time. Mingxia won a gold medal at the 1994 World Championships, but she was unhappy. She says she often cried while training for Atlanta and that music was one thing that soothed her.
|1978||Born August 16 in Wuhan, Hubei province, China|
|1989||Trains with head of Chinese national diving team|
|1990||Begins international competition, winning Alamo Invitational|
|1990||Wins first medal, a gold in platform diving at the Goodwill Games|
|1991||Made ineligible to dive at the World Cup Competition when age requirements are changed|
|1992||Wins first Olympic gold medal in Barcelona|
|1996||Wins two Olympic gold medals in Atlanta|
|1996||Retires from diving at age nineteen|
|1998||Begins practicing with the diving team at Qinghua University|
|2000||Wins Olympic gold medal in Sydney|
|2001||Retires from diving|
|2002||Marries Hong Kong financial secretary Antony Leung|
Mingxia's troubles were not evident when she won two gold medals in Atlanta, in the platform and three-meter events. At the previous Olympics she had been five-feet tall and ninety-eight pounds; now she was two inches taller and almost thirty pounds heavier. Although she was heavier, she was also stronger and incredibly consistent. In the competition, she was the only diver to receive more than sixty points on each of her dives. Her victories made her the first woman to win both events at one Olympics since Ingrid Kramer had done so in 1960. Along with Ziong Ni, who won gold in the men's springboard event, Mingxia led a dominant Chinese diving team. Their success was attributed in part to the fact that they practiced more than their rivals. However, Mingxia suffered from mental exhaustion after the Olympics, and at age nineteen received permission to retire from the Physical Culture and Sports Commission of China.
Amidst criticism that she had deserted her team, Mingxia began studying economics at Qinghua University in Beijing. She did not dive for two years, but came to practice with the university's diving team because she wondered if she could still dive and enjoy it. Finding her skills, if not fitness intact, she was able to follow a more limited training schedule, working half-days with weekends off. She proceeded to win two gold medals at the 1999 University Games and a silver in the springboard event at the 2000 FINA Diving World Cup.
At the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia, Mingxia was just twenty-two years old. She now had long, streaked hair and was seen as rebelling in other small ways, such as appearing at interviews without a handler. When she won a gold medal in springboard diving she reached the same plateau as divers Greg Louganis and Pat McCormick , who were previously the only divers to hold four Olympic gold medals. At the same time, Mingxia became the first female diver to win gold at three consecutive Olympic games. Remarkably, she also won a silver medal competing in the new event of synchronized diving with partner Guo Jingjing.
Awards and Accomplishments
|1990||Won Alamo Invitational|
|1990||Gold medal in platform diving at the Goodwill Games|
|1991||Gold medal in platform diving at World Championships|
|1992||Gold medal in platform diving at Olympics|
|1994||Gold medal in platform diving at the World Championships|
|1996||Gold medals in platform and springboard diving at the Olympics|
|1996||Nominated for Women's Sports Foundation Sportswoman of the Year|
|1999||Gold medals in platform and springboard diving at the University Games|
|2000||Silver medal in springboard diving at World Cup|
|2000||Gold medal in springboard diving at Olympics|
Fu Mingxia retired in 2001, having cemented her status as China's diving queen and as a model of excellence for divers everywhere. Her exceptional grace, flexibility, and strength allowed her to execute the most difficult dives with seeming ease. Beginning with her gold-medal winning performance at the 1992 Olympics, she dominated women's diving for more than eight years. While her earliest experiences in the sport were frightening and lonely, she came to love diving and would return from retirement in order to satisfy herself rather than others. Mingxia ended her career as one of the most successful divers ever.
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Sin-mi Hon, May. "Fu Mingxia applies to become an SAR student." Asia Africa Intelligence Wire (September 7, 2002).
Sketch by Paula Pyzik Scott