Olympics: Qiu diving for Chinese perfection

SHANGHAI - Without the benefit of a swimming pool for practice, China's Qiu Bo launched his diving career by jumping off trampolines into worn-out cushions, but now finds himself the key to his team's hopes of sweeping the Olympic competition.

The world champion will go head-to-head with home favourite Tom Daley in a battle of teenage dreamers for the 10-metre platform title at the Aquatics Centre, each facing crushing pressure for different reasons.

Daley, who stunned the world by winning the 2009 world title at the age of 15, faces the burden of expectation as his country's Olympic poster-boy, while 19-year-old Qiu must satisfy his peerless team's demands for perfection.

China's divers were denied their target of scooping all eight titles in Beijing when Zhou Luxin surrendered his lead and the 10m platform gold to Australia's Matthew Mitcham, leaving the home team one short of clean sweep.

Qiu can sympathise with Zhou. As a 16-year-old on the brink of winning gold at his first world championships in 2009, he executed his final dive poorly, allowing Daley to pip him for the title.

Qiu found redemption two years later at the 2011 world championships when he stormed to the 10m platform title in his home pool, and took a second in the synchronised 10m platform, helping his team pocket all 10 golds.

"The biggest challenge is from myself to beat myself. The aim is to win everything," he said at a World Series meeting in Dubai earlier this year, where China swept all eight titles.

Qiu's emergence has eased a long headache for head diving coach Zhou Jihong, who had searched in vain for a diver to fill the enormous void left by 10m platform specialist Tian Liang, who captured gold at the 2000 Sydney Games and a 10m platform sychronised gold at Athens four years later.

Like many other Chinese Olympians, Qiu started from the humblest of beginnings, the son of laid-off factory workers in southwestern Sichuan province.

As a bouncy five-year-old, Qiu would mimic the handstands his gymnast uncle would perform and so impressed his family with his arm strength that they persuaded a local sports school to take him in.

With no pool at the school, training began in a shabby gymnasium that leaked on rainy days, but within two years, Qiu was diving for the provincial team despite the training fees swallowing his parents' combined salaries.

"He has always wanted to stick with the training, so we as parents had to clear the path for him," Qiu's mother Liu Liyu told Reuters in a phone interview.

His sturdy frame was seen as a disadvantage in a sport which places a premium on a splash-free entry.

"But he has naturally the skill to smoothly enter the water, plus he was very quiet and stable," his provincial-level coach Liu Meichuan told Reuters.

"He never tried to compete with others. Some kids would slack off in the training but Qiu would never stop until he got sweat all over himself."

Qiu has lived by the mantra of ignoring his rivals and focusing on his performance, which may prove crucial when he battles Daley and the home crowd at London.

Capturing Olympic gold would not only bring adulation in a country of 1.3 billion but also untold financial rewards from endorsements and grateful sports officials.

The Sichuan government paid out 500,000 yuan (S$100,000) for each gold home-grown athletes brought back from Beijing in 2008, a small fortune in a hardscrabble province where relatively affluent urban residents earn an average annual income of about $2,400.

"If he won, we would use the money to buy a home," said Qiu's mother, who with her husband have never owned one in their lives.

"I will watch his event, but I won't watch the last two dives," she said. "I will feel extremely nervous."

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