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When school lets out at 4 p.m., the card playing begins. Gao runs a game—it's a variation on old maid called gong zhu—that makes Nathan Detroit's look little-traveled. She has beaten her friends in a dozen different countries, giggling all the while. She shuffles fast, deals fast and wins fast. And she's as fiercely competitive when holding cards that look oversized in her tiny hands as she is when performing on the diving board.
The card games are followed by a half hour of volleyball, and then it's back to the pool. "Yes, we have five hours of training a day, but it's not hard," says Tan Liangde, the men's silver medalist in springboard at the L.A. Olympics. "The variety—volleyball, some weight training, soccer, diving, all sorts of things—makes it fun."
At night the kids live it up in their dorm rooms. The girls breakdance, whirling on the floor, just as they have seen it done on the streets in the States. Whatever the style of dancing, for the most part girls partner girls. As in Chinese society at large, there's little visible evidence of romance at the Beijing Gymnasium.
Tan, the team gray beard at 23, teaches the male divers pop songs he has learned during his years on the road. "I like Western music—Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston." he says. "And the McDonald's song: 'You deserve a break today....' " Xu judges the songfest as he would a diving meet, with cards and points. He may be stern at the pool, but he knows how to lighten up during nonbusiness hours.
Finally the long day comes to an end. It's 10 o'clock, and Xu says, "Lights out." The kids drop off and presumably dream of Seoul.
If it's surprising that Camp Beijing is a fun place, it's astonishing that the team from there is the most formidable in the world. In what would stand as the most stunning display of precocity in the history of the Games, the Chinese kiddie korps could win half of all the diving medals awarded in Seoul.
If it does, the credit will belong most of all to Xu. For three decades he has been a keen observer of diving, and he has developed a method that blends youth, hard work, acrobatics, martial arts and spiritualism.
In the 1950s, Xu, who's now 46, was a promising young athlete in Guangdong Province. "I decided to concentrate on diving in 1956," he says. "I was several times the national champion in the early '60s." An analytical student of his sport, he was primed to move into the coaching ranks when the Cultural Revolution began. "Suddenly there was nothing to do," he says. "From '66 to '68, I did practically nothing, because we weren't allowed to excel. I became depressed."
The sadness of those days couldn't extinguish Xu's passion for his sport. He became a one-man underground clearinghouse on diving science. "I would cut out anything I could find on diving—in newspapers, in books—and save it," he says. "I had clips on the Americans. I learned how dives were changing. I thought about how the new dives and innovations might apply to China."
When China was ready to reenter the international arena, Xu was uniquely prepared, and he was named national team coach in 1973. "From the start, we knew he was the man in Chinese diving," says University of Texas diving coach Mike Brown. "He'd come to the meets alone, without his team, but always with his video camera. He'd shoot dives, and he'd take pictures of equipment—trampolines, weights, stuff like that."