2 mighty dynasties on display at world championships
By PAUL NEWBERRY
Jul. 20, 2017
BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — They're the New England Patriots of the pool, two of the greatest dynasties in sports history, both on display this week in an elegant European capital.
When it comes to diving at the world aquatics championships, no one can match the twists and turns of the mighty Chinese.
Over at the synchronized swimming venue, it's the Russians who dominate with their dazzling routines.
"There is no limit to perfection," said Svetlana Kolesnichenko, who has won four synchronized golds in Budapest.
The United States once ruled these two sports.
For the better part of the 20th century, stars such as Greg Louganis kept the Americans on top of the diving world. After synchronized swimming was added to the Olympic program, the U.S. took gold or silver in every event through the Atlanta Games in 1996.
The diving tide began to turn when China won its first such medals at the 1984 Los Angeles Games. After Louganis' retirement four years later, there was no stopping the world's most populous nation from becoming the sport's unquestioned superpower.
Bolstered by a huge talent base and a state-sponsored system that identifies top prospects at an early age, it's essentially China vs. the Rest of the World.
For the better part of three decades, the world hasn't stood a chance.
"It was quite a few years ago when I just got them out of my mind," said Australia's Maddison Keeney, who advanced to the final of the women's 3-meter springboard but knows she faces an uphill battle after a pair of Chinese divers, Shi Tingmao and Wang Han, dominated the semifinals.
"They're good, and I don't think of them as my competition. Beating them is not my goal. My goal is to perform the best that I can. If I manage to beat them by doing dives that I'm really happy with, then that's just how it goes. I'm not really too focused on how they're diving."
China won its sixth gold in 10 diving events Thursday evening when Xie Siyi cruised to victory in the men's 3-meter springboard.
Showing just how deep the talent level runs, Xie stepped up to take the gold after teammate and reigning Olympic champion Cao Yuan botched two straight dives, dropping him all the way to a disappointing 10th-place finish.
Even when one diver stumbles, there's usually another to pick up the slack.
China's dominance at worlds began at the fifth edition of the event in 1986. Riding the wave of its breakthrough Olympic performance in Los Angeles, the country claimed its first championship golds by winning both women's events (while Louganis swept the men's titles).
Over the last 31 years, the Chinese have won 81 of 119 events at worlds — a staggering 68 percent — and plenty of other medals as well (151 out of a possible 357). And remember, they can only enter two divers or teams in each discipline.
The expectation of success is passed down from one generation to the next.
Every new group of divers that comes along knows anything less than gold will be a huge letdown.
"There is pressure, of course," Wang said through a translator, looking ahead to Friday's springboard final. "Every time we perform at an event, we try to challenge ourselves to do our best."
In synchronized swimming, the Russians have turned the pool into an aquatic Bolshoi.
The captured their first two golds with a sweep at the 2000 Sydney Olympics — and haven't lost since on the sport's biggest stage. It's much the same story at the world championships, which feature far more synchronized events but are essentially nothing more than everyone else battling for silver.
In Budapest, the Russians have captured five of six events so far, most in dominating fashion. The only slip-up was a silver medal behind Italy in the mixed duet technical routine, a relatively new, non-Olympic event in which men are allowed to compete.
That's pretty much the way it's been at the worlds since Russia ended the American dominance by sweeping all three events in 1998 at Perth, Australia.
Over the last two decades, the Sparkles and Gel Machine has captured 49 golds and six silvers — missing out on the world podium in just two of 57 events.
"They are the best country. They have the best swimmers," said Spain's Ona Carbonell, who has twice settled for silver in Budapest and is quite used to the runner-up role. "I fight to win, but it's not easy."
Not that she's got anything to be ashamed of. Ditto for all those divers who've looked up to the Chinese.
When you're facing two of sport's greatest dynasties, silver can look just as shiny as gold.
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