The bronze went to Russia's Yulia Pakhalina
ATHENS, Greece -- The United States used to collect diving gold medals like they were nothing more than souvenir Olympic pins.
These days, the Americans would settle for any medal. The color doesn't even matter.
The U.S. diving team is staring at its first medals shutout in 92 years after Rachelle Kunkel finished ninth in the 3-meter springboard Thursday night, far behind a 1-2 finish by the powerful Chinese.
Kunkel, who has to schedule training around her 36-hour-a-week job as a labor and delivery nurse in Los Angeles, admitted she was in awe of the Chinese and Russians.
"They're unbelievable," she said.
The United States used to be the world's diving superpower, claiming 41 of the 62 gold medals that were available between 1904 -- when the sport made its Olympic debut at St. Louis -- and the '76 Montreal Games.
The balance of power began to shift in the 1980s, though the brilliance of Greg Louganis obscured the decline of American diving.
The Chinese won their first Olympic gold in 1984, and they've been on a roll ever since. They already have matched their record five gold medals from 2000 and could break the mark in the final diving event of the Athens Games, the men's 10-meter platform.
"We just need to come up with something so we can beat the Chinese and stop this process," said Pakhalina, who attends the University of Houston. "We feel a little bit unsatisfied right now."
Imagine how the Americans must be feeling.
Their two platform divers, Caesar Garcia and Kyle Prandi, aren't considered strong contenders, so it appears likely this group will join the 1912 team as the only ones that failed to capture at least one Olympic medal.
The Chinese women, on the other hand, have won five straight springboard golds.
"I do not feel any pressure," Guo said matter-of-factly. "I finished my competition, and I got my gold medal."
China won its first springboard gold in 1988, when Gao Min captured the first of two straight titles. Fu Mingxia pulled off the double in Atlanta and Sydney before giving way to Guo, who was the silver medalist four years ago.
"This is due to the hard work we have put in," Wu said. "The more you put in, the more you will get back."
Australia's Irina Lashko led heading into the final, but faded badly after a strong first dive. The three-time Olympian, who competed for Russia at the 1992 and '96 games, dropped to seventh.
Guo never faltered, receiving a perfect mark of 10 on her second dive and another on her fourth attempt to build a commanding lead. No one else got so much height off the board, kept her spins so tight or created such a small splash when entering the water.
Guo had a bit of trouble on the entry of her final dive, receiving her lowest scores of the night. The large Chinese contingent at the indoor pool booed lustily, forcing Pakhalina to back away from the board for a few seconds.
It didn't matter. Guo still finished with 633.15 points, beating out her teammate's total of 612.00. Pakhalina barely missed the silver, finishing third with 610.62.
Pakhalina added to a pair of synchronized Olympic medals. She won a gold in Sydney, a silver earlier in the Athens Games and now the bronze -- a complete set.
"I've got all of them now," she said.
Kunkel received better marks on every dive but one compared to her performance in the preliminaries. Still, she wasn't close to capturing the first U.S. medal, finishing with 546.72.
"I'm super-happy with the list I put together," she said. "I held all my nerves inside. I had a good time. I had fun."
At least she made it to the final. America's top springboard diver, Kimiko Soldati, didn't even get out of the preliminaries.
"I came out wanting no regrets, just going after it," Kunkel said. "So I'm happy."
Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press
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