China's Diving Diva

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Chinese diver Fu Mingxia is preparing to take the plunge for gold at the Sydney Games

Triple gold medalist Fu Mingxia doesn't expect anyone to remember her. Sure, China's mop-haired diving diva was the youngest gold medalist in Barcelona, at 13, and a double winner in Atlanta. But when she ducked out of the limelight at 18, her whispery voice citing mental exhaustion, the former child prodigy figured her glory days were done. Even today as she trains for Sydney, Fu downplays her talents. "I'm old and a little fat now," jokes the 22-year-old. "I'm yesterday's news."

Until next week, anyway. Despite her doubts, beating the waif who enchanted Barcelona and dazzled Atlanta represents a high degree of difficulty. Fu's jumping-bean antics have matured into an aquatic elegance that could raise this veteran above a crop of agile young rivals, some of whom perform the scary dives that were once her exclusive domain.

Fu never expected to be training for the 2000 Olympics. She left competition in 1996 and dived into normal life, studying management science at Beijing's prestigious Qinghua University. For two years, not once did she clamber onto a board. "The last thing I wanted to do was dive," she recalls. "I just wanted to be a kid without any pressures."

Childhood is expendable for China's sporting machine, which churns out young athletes to boost the country's image. Flexible first-graders are packed off to gymnastics and diving camps while their lankier counterparts head for the volleyball courts. Fu joined the diving assembly line at age 7 and was shipped off to a Beijing sports school a couple of years later. Homesick, she cried for the first few months. But during nine-hour practices she was trained to empty herself of all emotion, particularly fear.

Soon Fu was skimming so close to the board during her dives that her short hair sometimes brushed the end of the platform before she sliced into the water. She saw her parents once a year. Occasionally they would come to diving meets in her native Hubei province, and Fu would scan the audience from the platform trying to locate them. Usually, she knew they had visited only by the care packages her mother left in the locker room.

It was while daydreaming during an economics lecture — and haven't we all? — in 1998 that China's Olympic poster girl realized that diving could actually be fun. She missed the water, the exhilaration of soaring through the air and sliding into the tank with barely a ripple. "Taking a break took the pressure off diving," she says. "It made me realize that I loved the sport and that I could do it on my own terms."

In January, less than a year after she re-emerged, her crisp dives captured a silver medal at the Diving World Cup. The gold went to 18-year-old compatriot Guo Jingjing, Fu's main rival in the individual events and partner in synchronized diving, a debut sport at Sydney. "Guo is China's young star," Fu says with a smile. "But don't count the big sister out yet."

This time Fu is diving not for her country, not for her coach, not for her fans, but for herself. The nine-hour practices have been replaced by a more manageable five hours. "Practicing just for the sake of practicing is pointless," Fu says, snapping her gum. She enlivens drills by blasting pop music, thumping techno beats that she hopes will propel her past Guo.

Fu rebels in a thousand small ways, showing up at interviews without the usual grim-faced handler and shrugging off a 9:30 p.m. curfew in favor of a refill of iced coffee. The boyish bowl cut has been replaced by long, highlighted locks and a Sporty Spice wardrobe of tight T shirts, baggy clamdiggers and unlaced Nikes.

Despite her past successes, Fu's state salary is meager — $120 a month — although she has signed an endorsement deal with Nike. If Fu wins gold at Sydney, she could net an estimated $60,000 in rewards. But Fu insists that money isn't what's motivating her. "When I won in Barcelona and Atlanta, I was a child and it was too easy," she says. "But if I win at Sydney, it will be a medal I have earned all by myself."

Then Fu pauses, runs her hand through her streaked hair and grins. "Besides, if people are going to remember me, I don't want it to be with that silly old hairstyle." When a grownup Fu Mingxia takes to the board in Sydney, she'll be ready to show everyone who she is: mettle, grace and a stylish new do.