Fu Mingxia burst on the scene at the Barcelona Games, soaring against the skyline and not yet 14. By Sydney 2000, the now 22 year old had developed the soul of an wise philosopher.
Best Olympic athletes: Fu Mingxia, the philosophical diver
He first saw Fu Mingxia soaring in Barcelona, not yet 14. Chuck Culpepper says he later discovered she had an old philosopher's soul
The scene almost defied belief with its approximation of perfection.
Arguably the most enchanting of Olympics had just begun, and here a virtuoso would arc upwards time after time, airborne in front of a gorgeous backdrop before descending with impossible precision into azure water. Seldom had waking hours seemed more dreamlike.
Anyone who wandered on to the Montjuic hill above Barcelona could recognise that seeing Fu Mingxia set against the city of Barcelona was a precious experience.
First off, the Chinese girl had lived all of 13 years and 11 months, still awaiting a 14th birthday that would come one week after the Olympics ended. She stood all of 1.52m but, of course, had not quite finished growing.
Even a novice viewer might have known that, at age 12, in 1991, she had become the youngest world champion in any sport. Without any apparent tic of nervousness she outdistanced the field so that when she appeared in the air above the stunning city with the Sagrada Familia sticking out, you almost reckoned there should be some sort of string quartet nearby.
After Fu's runaway gold medal in the 10-metre platform came the rush to learn more things about Fu which, of course, wallowed somewhat in absurdity. How much can anyone learn about someone who has not yet lived 14 years, and how much in-depth learning can come through earphones that relay the words from translators stationed in booths?
So we learnt that Fu liked ice cream. That was a start. We learnt she liked dancing. All right. Some intrepid sleuth asked as to her favourite musician, and she replied with a word that sounded something like the English "Niagara", as in Niagara Falls.
"Madonna," an interpreter barked into the phones.
We learnt that she started training as a gymnast by the age of three. We learnt that she learnt to swim in a river with instruction from her father. We learnt that she learnt to swim and dive simultaneously, and that they used to tie a rope around her waist to hoist her out of the pool, which must have involved some caution in order to refrain from breaking a being so precious.
We learnt that she was the daughter of Chinese labourers, even though she could not tell us what kind of labour her parents routinely undertook. We learnt that way, way back, at age 9, she left home to travel the 1,000km for the training. She would see her parents only about twice per year. She missed seeing them but had grown accustomed to her divergent life.
We heard the Chinese divers would train even amid storms. "If you can dive in the midst of a rainstorm," Fu said that day, "then you can dive here even better."
Getting more technical about it, we learnt what our untrained eyes suspected but could not verify, that Fu's programme contained far more difficulty than the other divers. We heard tell of terrifying terms such as "back three-and-one-half twisters" and "back three-and-one-half pikes". Experts told us that simply by what she attempted, even a miss would leave her well ahead of the field. Her superiority prompted those in the know to compare her by utilising a proper noun they would not have used thoughtlessly: "Louganis."
The bronze medallist, the American, Mary Ellen Clark, joined others in noting that Fu's biggest challenge through ensuing years would come not from competition so much as from nature as her body would continue to grow.
Four years later, of course, here came Fu again, having reached the grizzled age of … 17. At Atlanta 1996, she won the platform to repeat her title, but she also won the 3m springboard to become the first woman since 1960 to win both events in an Olympics. In the springboard, she overcame a 13-point deficit. Her precision enthralled and commanded again, but this time she seemed a mite less Madonna and ice cream than burden and toil.
Sounding beyond-her-years, she told of arduous training that sometimes dredged tears, saying, "I couldn't even put it into words."
She said, "I think I have grown up a lot from a little girl to now." At 1.57m, she stood a bit taller and looked stouter than in Barcelona. That navigation could not have been easy, and she said, "I have made many sacrifices."
By Sydney 2000, then, the girl born in 1978 had become a woman of 22.
She had foregone diving at all for a two-year swatch, then decided to return, then tacked on a silver medal in the newfangled addition of synchronised diving (which, for historical purposes, does not factor into assessment here), but more tellingly, another gold medal in the springboard. That gave her an array of titles stretched across three Olympics but also rendered curious her statement from an age pretty much wizened.
Describing herself as "an ordinary person", she heard her name among the sport's all-time supernovas and said, "I've never thought of comparing myself to any of those athletes, because it wouldn't be too meaningful to me."
The ingenious girl superimposed above the beautiful Barcelona had been, after all, in several ways, alone.
The top 10 Olympic divers
1. Fu Mingxia, China, 1992, 1996, 2000 – Became the only woman to win five Olympic medals with silver in the 3m synchro in Sydney.
2. Greg Louganis, United States, 1976, 1984, 1988 – Achieved a double-double in Seoul, claiming the springboard and platform gold for the second time.
3. Kalus Dibiasi, Italy 1968, 1972, 1976 – Became the first diver to win the same Olympic event three times consecutively in the 10m platform in Montreal.
4. Dmitri Sautin, Russia, 1992, 1996, 2000, 2004, 2008 – The only Olympic diver to win seven medals – at five different Games.
5. Ingrid Kramer, Germany, 1960, 1964 – Became the first person from somewhere other than the US to win gold on the springboard.
6. Pat McCormick, United States, 1952, 1956 – Won both the platform diving and springboard diving medals in two consecutive Olympics in Melbourne, less than a year after giving birth.
7. Albert White, United States, 1924 – White has the distinction of bvecoming the first athlete to win gold in both the platform and springboard events.
8. Sammy Lee, United States, 1948, 1952 – The first male to win gold in the same event, 10m platform, in two consecutive Olympics, also won bronze in 3m springboard in London.
9. Micki King, United States, 1968, 1972 – King missed the medals in 1968 after breaking her arm during competition. She returned to take gold on the springboard four years later.
10. Franco Cagnotto, Italy, 1964, 1968, 1972, 1976, 1980, – Cagnotto never won gold at the Olympics but in a career that spanned five different Games, picked up silver and bronze in Munich, silver in Montreal and bronze in Moscow.
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