SYDNEY, Australia — As the Chinese divers drop endlessly, silently, smoothly into the water, posting mostly scores of 9s, 9.5s, even perfect 10s, it could be discouraging to everyone else.
Tian Liang and Hu Jia qualified first and second for today's men's platform final with defending gold medalist Dmitry Sautin of Russia third. David Pichler of Butler, Pa., qualified seventh and Mark Ruiz of Orlando, Fla., qualified 10th for the 12-man final.
There have been seven diving events concluded so far and the Chinese have eight medals--four gold and four silver.
The Chinese divers do miss. Laura Wilkinson of The Woodlands, Texas, was an upset winner in the women's platform because Li Na and Sang Xue missed dives in the final round. But that's what it comes down to most of the time. Hoping the Chinese miss.
Pichler, a 32-year-old Ohio State graduate who finished sixth on the platform in the 1996 Olympics, has watched his Chinese opponents for 12 years.
"It's a different way of life for them," Pichler said Friday after his semifinal round of diving. "We don't have the opportunity to train that they do, the subsidized training. On the other hand, they don't have the opportunities we do outside of diving.
"Maybe 10 years ago I would have traded what I had for a medal but not now. Now I have a college degree, a job, a dog, friends, a life. I wouldn't trade what I have now to be in the Chinese system. Maybe there was a point where I would have, but it would have been a mistake."
With only Wilkinson's gold medal in the expanded program of diving where four new events were added--men's and women's synchronized platform and three meter--the U.S. may have its worst performance ever. The U.S. has never won fewer than two medals and has only one more chance to pick up a second.
Since Wilkinson upset the Chinese women, the Americans have said, in every event, that the Chinese were capable of folding under pressure. And every time since Wilkinson's victory, the Chinese have performed flawlessly.
"They can make mistakes," Pichler said. "They are not perfect every time. But I don't want it to sound like we need to count on them to make mistakes. Mark and I have a list of dives which, if we perform well, we can win."
Ruiz, 21, whose single mother had given up her beautician's business in Puerto Rico to move Mark to Orlando for diving, had come to Sydney with hopes of medaling in either the springboard or platform. He was seventh in the springboard and disappointed. Ruiz will be more disappointed if he doesn't medal in the platform.
"If the gold medal were given to the guy who wanted it the most," he said, "I would definitely get the gold. I want this more than anybody."
Wanting does not get you points from the judges, though. Flawless entries into the water do that. It is the entries of the Chinese that impress Ruiz.
"They are really great at entering the water," Ruiz said. "And they're really consistent. They have the perfect bodies, they're so skinny."
Pichler also pointed to body type as a reason the Chinese are dominating the sport. "They choose kids, little kids, based on body type," Pichler said. "The kids don't choose the sport."
Excuses, explanations, it doesn't matter. What is clear is that since Greg Louganis retired, the U.S. has not been able to compete with the Chinese divers.
"I think we can," Pichler insisted. "I still plan to go out and win a medal. Mark has a chance too."