MISSION VIEJO — Hongping Li was honored and excited when he was promoted from his elementary school gymnastics team to the provincial team. And he was again honored--if not quite as excited--when he was selected to become a member of the national diving team.
"In China, all families are quite poor, I had six brothers and sisters, and this is not only a great opportunity and honor, it's quite a financial addition for the family," he said. "Plus, you have no choice."
Li was 10. He was moving hundreds of miles from his home. He had never even seen a diving board. And he wasn't particularly fond of water.
"I had no idea what the sport of diving was," he said. "I had never seen anyone dive, even on television. All I knew I was good at tumbling and very bad at swimming. And I had no choice."
The Chinese talent scouts must have known what they were doing, though. Li became a 12-time national champion, a two-time Olympian and won a gold medal in the platform competition in the 1981 world championships.
Now, he's coach of the Mission Viejo Nadadores and preparing to lead the U.S. team during the 1998 World Championships in Perth, Australia, Jan. 8-18. Sitting next to the diving well at Mission Viejo's Marguerite International Swim Complex, his young charges spinning into the turquoise behind him, Li can't help but shake his head as he talks about where he has been, where he's headed and where he's coming from as a coach.
"If you ask these kids, they'll say they someday dream of being in the Olympics," he says, "but you can't just dream. Everything comes from hard work and structure. One of the most important elements of training is a daily pattern of self discipline.
"Certainly my background has much impact on my philosophies and values, but I know what a diver must do to reach his ultimate potential and it is my job to provide an environment where these kids can develop and be the best they can be."
That may be as easily done as said in China, but Li, 34, in his fifth year as head coach at Mission Viejo, quickly discovered the difference between Chinese youngsters and their U.S. counterparts.
"They all have to seem like spoiled brats to him," said former USC and Industry Hills diving Coach Rick Earley, now an assistant at Mission Viejo. "He wants them to concentrate on technique, on getting one thing right at a time because if you focus on getting the little things right, in the end, it all comes together.
"It was hard for him at first, but he's learned that these kids want to know why they're doing something."
And it was that repeated question--"Why?"--that most tested Li's patience.
"I struggled with it," Li said. "We would never challenge authority to ask why, but these kids are not Chinese. They grow up in an environment with much freedom, where they are allowed to make many choices. And they don't just challenge me, they challenge their teachers, even their parents.
"Sometimes they aren't very polite. Sometimes they don't show the proper respect. Sometimes I don't appreciate the way they act, but I'm beginning to understand it."
While Li's coaching tactics have grudgingly evolved, he also has come to admire many of his students simply because they can quit at any time--a choice he never had--and don't.
One, Mission Viejo 15-year-old Erica Sorgi has worked with Li since she started diving at age 8 and Li was an assistant coach at Mission Viejo.
Sorgi, who will be representing the United States in Perth in the one- and three-meter springboard events, credits him with teaching her a lot more than perfect body angle and how to rip an entry.
"He's really into discipline because of his culture, but his background, his experience, it's all really helped me," she said. "Actually, I think he used to be nicer, but I guess he just expects more now. He knows what it takes."
And these darn American kids keep demanding he explain it.
"Now I know I must explain why we do something 1,000 times," Li said, managing a weary smile. "I have to encourage them, motivate them, make sure they maintain a positive frame of mind.
"I guess I still have a reputation of being tough and I've heard them say, 'He's so mean.' But now I think they mean it in a nice way."
Earley, then coaching at USC, first saw Li compete during the 1984 Olympics, where Li came just short of edging countryman Kongzheng Li for the bronze medal in the platform competition and finished fourth. He later recruited him and has seen him transform from a freshman who didn't speak English into, well, OK, maybe something less than the great communicator.
"He was a little hard on them at first and some left, but he's gotten some balance and learned to communicate," said Earley, whose daughter, Arika, a sophomore at UC Irvine trained with Li while attending Mission Viejo High. "He's come a long way from the guy I picked up at the airport, who couldn't speak a word I could understand."