"This might be my last Olympics," said Shi Tingmao. "If I can carry on, I am closer to the victory."
By Sportswriters Bai Xu and Yue Dongxing
TOKYO, Aug. 1 (Xinhua) -- When asked if Chinese diver Shi Tingmao could defend her titles at the Tokyo Olympics, a man who knew her replied without thinking: "definitely".
He was right.
In the women's three-meter springboard competition on Sunday, the 29-year-old diver easily won the gold medal with 383.5 points, nearly 35 points ahead of silver medalist and compatriot Wang Han.
Her lowest score of the five attempts was 75. In the last dive, she made the highest score of 78.
Shi's success came a week after she and Wang took China's first diving gold at Tokyo 2020 in the Women's synchronised three-meter springboard, thus defending both titles from five years ago in Rio de Janeiro.
"One year ago I was not doing that well," Shi said after the competition. "I'm very thankful that I didn't give up."
On the springboards at international events, Shi always looked composed. Only her tears after Sunday's competition might reveal the difficulties and struggles behind the gold medals.
Shi was born in southwest China's Chongqing municipality, where she was selected from kindergarten to learn gymnastics at the age of five.
In 1998, her gymnastics team was disbanded, and Shi was later transferred to the diving team.
At that time her name was Shi Tingting. Her dad Shi Xiaolin said that the last character "ting" was a Mandarin homophone for the word "stop", and considered it a bad omen for her diving career. So her granddad picked up the character "mao" instead, meaning "hard-working".
Shi has lived up to her name.
According to former coach Zhang Yulan, however difficult her training was, Shi never gave up. "Once she broke her front teeth," she said. "She was only eight that year, but she didn't cry. I thought she was so brave and persistent that one day, she would achieve big things."
Her yellowed photos in the family album showed that as a little girl, Shi had a pony tail. For training purposes, she then cut her hair short.
In 2012, Shi was selected onto the national diving team at the relatively late age of 21. Olympic gold medalist Guo Jingjing entered the national team at the age of 12, while world champion Wu Minxia did so at 13.
But Shi progressed quickly. She was almost unbeaten in the three-meter springboard event at major international competitions: the Diving World Cup and World Championships. She was also the Olympic champion in 2016 and Asian Games champion in 2018.
According to her father, Shi has already acquired "11.6 kilograms" of gold medals in all these years.
There were, of course, sacrifices that she had to make for her wins.
Training has taken up so much of her time that she rarely has the chance to go back home to Chongqing. She has a pillow on which there was a printed group photo of Shi and her parents, which she took with her during her days alone.
"She was unable to go home even for Spring Festival," said her mother Meng Jingbi, who would send her morsels of food so that the diver could enjoy a taste of home.
The postponement of the Tokyo Olympics came as a blow. Many divers of her age had retired, and she had suffered from several injuries, especially to her lower back and ankles. When her injuries were serious, all she could do was lie in bed and her waist ached with every breath.
On those days she worried and sometimes couldn't finish her training. On the springboard which she had stepped on hundreds of times, she hesitated. In her mind there seemed to be two voices, one yelling "giving up" while the other asking her to continue.
After constant encouragement from her parents, coach and teammates, the second voice prevailed. "This might be my last Olympics," she said. "If I can carry on, I am closer to the victory."
In an interview with the China Sports Daily, she once said philosophically: "It is not the gold medal that makes you stronger. It is your courage to face up difficulties and then overcome them on the road leading to the podium. It is easy for one to believe in himself in favorable circumstances, but hard in times of adversity. This might be the difference between excellence and greatness."