U.S. diving's motto: Keep it simple
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Two divers high-five, then hop-skip to the edge of the 10-meter platform in near-unison. One is 51. The other is going on 15. They tip into space together and launch themselves into side-by-side flips. The teenager knifes into the water cleanly. The older man's legs, slightly off kilter, produce a telltale splash.
Yet the image is perfect: Quadruple Olympic gold medalist Greg Louganis performing alongside burgeoning young talent Steele Johnson before the finals of a Grand Prix event in May, the glorious past meshing with the unwritten future of U.S. diving -- a future both hope to have a role in writing.
The next chapter kicks off Saturday, when the U.S. team begins competition at the World Championships in Shanghai, the first opportunity for countries to earn slots in the 2012 London Olympics.
It has been at least 20 years since Americans could expect to dominate a meet at this level. The Chinese took over as the pre-eminent team in the world in the early '90s and have maintained their stranglehold, as the U.S. medal count shrank from five in Louganis' second and final Games (1988) to three to two to one to none in the past two Olympics.
Synchronized events were introduced in 2000, doubling the opportunities to medal. In practice, that simply multiplied the chances for the Chinese -- by then flowing copiously from a state-funded pipeline of training centers -- to win. But other countries improved, as well. Australia, Canada, Great Britain and Russia all moved into the vacuum left by the gradual decline of the United States.
The remedy is also gradual, according to Steve Foley, hired after the 2008 Beijing Games as high performance director for USA Diving.
"In my opinion, the U.S. got caught napping a little bit, because their tradition was so great," said Foley, a gregarious Aussie who dove competitively for 20 years and helped build programs in his native country and Great Britain. "Let's get the pride back and the passion. We want to get back on the podium, and if we can only get a bronze for now, that's the beginning.
"To be honest, I'm not even talking to [the divers] about medals. Everyone's aware that's what we want to do, but what we're really talking about is performance. I think they've become too obsessed with the history. All that does is put another 50 pounds on your shoulders."
Foley started by changing the name of the federation's elite talent scouting/funding initiative from the Olympic Medal Program to the Olympic Performance Program -- a difference he contends is more than semantic. Each country can field only two divers in the individual events (3-meter springboard and 10-meter platform) and one synchro team in 3-meter and 10-meter men's and women's competition, and Foley's message is anyone can be beaten on any given day.
"Do five good dives," he said. "Keep it simple."
Then Foley approached Louganis, who hadn't been involved with the national team since his retirement, and asked him to serve as a mentor. Louganis, who also recently began coaching at the club level in Southern California, has embraced his role as a motivational guru and pays regular visits to top divers and their coaches in a program funded by the U.S. Olympic Committee.
"I talk to the kids about taking responsibility," Louganis said. "Bad boards, bad weather ... so what? Don't give yourself an excuse. I really encourage them to stay away from rituals, like 'I didn't have my favorite chamois at this meet, so I couldn't do well.'
"I also explained to them my philosophy that it was my responsibility to win the judges over, and the only way I was going to win the judges over was with my performance. I felt I needed to win the prelims, because once you get into finals, the judges are going to reward consistency. If you do an incredible dive, they're not going to be afraid to throw up a 10 because you've built confidence in them. That can make the difference between a gold and a silver."
It's hard for the American divers not to view the Chinese, with their collectively matchless fusion of athleticism and aesthetics, as a near-insurmountable obstacle standing in the way of success. But Foley, Louganis and John Wingfield, head coach at the National Training Center in Indianapolis, have been chipping away at that notion.
Just as the Chinese once studied Louganis' technique, the U.S. diving leadership is urging the athletes to study the Chinese -- and then forget everything but their own form once they're standing on the board.
The message has gotten through to David Boudia, 22, one of the most decorated members of this U.S. generation, with medals in World Championship, World Cup and Pan-Am Games competition.
"You can only see [the Chinese] as a tool to help your diving," said Boudia, a 10-meter platform specialist who competed for Purdue University and finished in the top 10 in both the individual and synchronized events at the 2008 Olympics. "You use their success and their dives as fuel, but ultimately it's you and your performance representing your country. It's not good to try to be someone that you're not."
The 2008 U.S. Olympic team was the youngest ever. This 14-member U.S. worlds team includes six divers with Olympic experience but is still youthful with half a dozen teenagers. The notable exception is 31-year-old Troy Dumais, who has four top-10 finishes in three Olympic Games.
"We have a lot of young athletes who are veterans," Wingfield said. "We're going in positioned quite well."
Sixteen-year-old Kassidy Cook, a double junior world champion in 1- and 3-meter springboard last year who will compete in 3-meter synchro with Christina Loukas, brings fresh eyes to the Chinese monolith.
"When I first started doing international, I was impressed with them, but I noticed they do mess up sometimes, they balk,'' said Cook. "I was like, 'Hey, this is doable.' I think an American can beat them if they hit their dives."
Cook said she has keyed on the Chinese' ability to overcome a flawed "hurdle" -- the final forward spring or hop before a diver takes off -- and salvage a dive. The psychological effect of pushing past that mental block rather than "balking," or not continuing, can be enormous.
"He Zi, their springboard diver, she'll go on any take-off," Cook said. "That's definitely a big thing for her. We Americans, we like to get the good hurdles; we'll balk if we don't get them. She practices where she goes on every single hurdle, so if it happens in a meet, she'll know what to do. That's something I want to take and try myself."
Louganis heartily endorses that approach.
"My view was, every bad takeoff was an opportunity to learn," he said. "Can I do this dive from this position on the board? How good can I do this dive? How successful can I be with this deficit?
"I see the hunger. They want to succeed. I tell them that if you're looking at someone as your competition, you're limiting yourself. You are your own competition."
And Steele Johnson? He's not quite ready for the prime time of the World Championships, but he has the attitude the U.S. needs to compete for the Olympic podium.
"I love falling, and being on my own," he told a USA Diving interviewer last fall of his passion for the 10-meter event.
Shutting out the rest of the world, just for a few seconds, will be crucial for the U.S. to crack the top three again.
Bonnie D. Ford covers Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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