Illustration by Flora Arthur, Indiana University Bloomington
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Illustration by Flora Arthur, Indiana University Bloomington

This young athlete took the diving world by storm in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, can she maintain this level of success moving forward?

Young Chinese diver Quan Hongchan won the gold medal in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and shattered the previous Olympic record. It was Hongchan’s first international competition, which took place when she was just 14 years old. She was relatively unknown and had limited competition experience prior to the Olympics. Her flawless performance at such a young age stunned the world.

During the women’s 10-meter platform final, Hongchan executed three flawless dives, earning full scores in three out of five rounds and breaking the Olympic record with a total score of 466.20. This far exceeded the previous record of 447.70. Despite being just 14 years old, Hongchan’s strength surpassed that of her peers, and her movements were impeccable, displaying the results of her rigorous training. Her small stature also helped minimize her splash when she entered the water, enabling her to execute perfect dives. This precise control of splash is commonly referred to as the “splash disappearing technique” by experts.

Hongchan’s stunning performance elicited amazement from many people, but also led to criticisms of China’s approach to the Olympics. The Chinese government invests significant resources in earning as many medals as possible, using techniques such as DNA detection and the rigorous training of young athletes. Some argue that this approach is cruel to children who are forced to begin intense sports training at an early age. Although Hongchan began her training at the age of seven, like many other Chinese divers, the reasons for her early start are not as simple as they may seem.

Undoubtedly, Hongchan possesses an innate talent for diving. She was discovered in primary school after displaying an exceptional jumping ability. At just seven years old, she could jump 1.7 meters in a long jump, catching the coach’s attention. However, in addition to her natural abilities, her mother was another significant factor that led to Hongchan’s diving career.

Hongchan was born into poverty in a rural village in Guangdong province. Growing up, she had never been to an amusement park or a zoo. Adding to the family’s hardship, Hongchan’s mother fell ill due to a car accident, and they couldn’t afford the medical bills. Thus, Hongchan was driven to win the games and earn money to help her mother. “I want to make money to cure her,” Hongchan told reporters in Tokyo.

Hongchan’s poignant story resonated with many people. After winning her gold medal, videos of her remarkable diving skills and the circumstances that led to her success went viral on multiple social media platforms. The government, corporations, and celebrities demonstrated willingness to support and sponsor Hongchan and her family. Thanks to her achievements and tremendous online support, Hongchan can now pay for her sick mother’s medical bills and was even able to visit an amusement park.

However, as is true with many rising stars, Hongchan’s success also attracted negative attention. Some influencers went to her hometown to livestream at midnight to gain followers. Their “clout-chasing” behavior disturbed Hongchan’s family and violated local COVID-19 control measures. Hongchan’s father, Quan Wenmao, responded, “They can just send their regards. There is no need to come here.”

Despite the challenges, the public’s attention and discussion of Hongchan’s success have not waned since the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Fans eagerly anticipate her continued success with the “splash disappearing technique” in upcoming competitions. As expected, Hongchan won another gold medal in the 14th National Games held in Xi’an province, which was her first competition after the Olympics. The women’s 10-meter platform final was more competitive, with ten finalists, including four Olympic medalists, Chen Yuxi, Zhang Jiaqi, and Ren Qian. Hongchan’s ability to win gold against such fierce rivals earned her further praise.

However, despite the challenges she faced, Hongchan continued to work hard, expressing her determination to improve her skills and overcome the difficulties of competition. She acknowledged the pressure of public expectations, saying that she felt the need to perform flawlessly every time, but also recognized that making mistakes is part of the learning process.

In addition to the physical challenges of the sport, young female divers also have to contend with mental health issues such as stress and anxiety. Hongchan has been open about her struggles with anxiety and depression, especially after the Olympics. She received support from her coach and teammates and also sought professional help to manage her mental health.

In late 2021, Hongchan entered a physical development period, resulting in a nearly four-inch growth spurt over the course of a year. Hongchan openly admitted that her ability to execute somersaults and twists had been stymied by this rapid growth spurt. At the 19th FINA World Championships in Budapest in 2022, Hongchan made significant errors while performing the “207C” dive during the heats, semifinals and finals. This ultimately prevented her from earning a gold medal. Both Hongchan and her coach acknowledged that adapting to these physical changes would require some time.

Despite a small number of individuals criticizing the coach and Hongchan’s training, the majority of people showed understanding and concern toward the young diver’s mistakes. The situation was made more stressful by the highly competitive nature of the Chinese national diving team. With younger athletes on the rise, Hongchan knew that she risked being replaced during the Paris Olympic cycle if she did not overcome the physical hurdles that came with her development. To address this challenge, Hongchan stated that she must train with even greater rigor to match the intensity and pace of the national team.

To overcome the challenges she faces, Hongchan is pushing herself harder than ever before and has even cut out snacks in order to manage her weight. In a recent competition, Hongchan successfully executed the “207C” dive and delivered an impressive performance. Fans hope to see young “diving genius” return to the top of her sport in the near future.


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