I have a young girl inside my heart

Legends coaching legends – diving: Ren Shaofen (CHN)

By Zhou Xin
Editor from Asia, FINA Aquatics World Magazine (CHN)

For China’s former diving queen Fu Mingxia, one of the biggest regrets in her career was that she never claimed victory at the quadrennial National Games. Fu, four times an Olympic champion, was defeated at the National Games twice by the same rival, Wang Rui from Beijing. in 1993 and 1997. Wang was dubbed giant-killer and her coach was Ren Shaofen.

For Chen Ruolin, Ren is the one who guided her from a 13-year-old rookie to five-times Olympic champion on the 10m platform. Chen is the most decorated women’s platform diver in the world so far. Fourteen-year-old Zhang Jiaqi, who shocked Rio Olympic champion Ren Qian and Olympic silver medallist Si Yajie at the 2017 National Games, stepped up as the standard-bearer of diving’s younger generation and wrapped up two gold medals on the platform in the 2018 FINA World Cup in Wuhan in June, beating Ren Qian in the individual and winning the synchronised event with Zhang Minjie. The new champion’s coach is also Ren Shaofen.

Ren led Chen Lin to China’s first-ever diving world title, Chen winning the women’s 10m platform at the 5th FINA World Championships in Madrid in 1986. Thus Ren received the nickname of trainer of the giant-killers.

“I am not only a diving coach”

Congratulations on training Zhang Jiaqi, a new star in women’s platform. Could you please tell us what makes one an outstanding coach?

Experience and dedication. I have trained many platform divers and have a lot of experience in practice and competition. I take diving as a fun game where I always think how to solve the problems, how to find the way out and how to play better. It is interesting to deal with different divers.

What is the difference training Zhang and your other previous world champions, such as Chen Ruolin, Hu Yadan, Chen Lin and Wang Rui?

I need to deal with different divers in different ways. Everyone is different. Zhang is good at entry technique as she has been training with professional coaches since she was young. I have to say that she has a better start than most of the divers. However, she lacks the power and speed on the start and turns. She has been getting taller and heavier in recent months. We need to face the new challenges with her growth.

Zhang said you give her a gift, her favourite Barbie doll, every time she takes a victory. What is the reason behind your choosing a Barbie doll as a reward?

It is interesting that I had many dolls when I was young and I played with dolls all the time. I thought I was the queen of dolls and my dream profession at that time was kindergarten teacher. I made my dream come true when I became a diving coach. I like children and I know what and how they think. Most girls at Zhang’s age are like Barbie dolls. So I use Barbies to stimulate them during training and competition. It is a good way, everyone wants to get the gift and everyone tries hard in training.

Is it your special way to encourage your divers with small gifts?

I always believe that I have a young girl inside my heart. I play with them during spare time, singing, dancing, writing Chinese calligraphy, painting, making speeches, etc. I reward them with small gifts, such as pens, notebooks, key chains and dolls. I am very pleased that I have great relationships with my divers in daily life. I am not only a diving coach.

“I rode my bicycle all over Beijing city for six months!”

Could you tell us how you became a coach? How did you start as a coach and how did you select divers? 

I was not a successful diver. I entered the Beijing diving team in 1970 with my power and flexibility. I trained very hard and even harder than the regime. I stood at the top of the national junior championships in 1971 and 1972. I became a national team member in 1973. However, I injured my elbow once in training and turned to being a young coach soon afterwards. I retired too early, I did not compete in any big events. The way to select divers was like finding the fishing hook in the sea! I rode my bicycle all over Beijing city for six months! As far as I can remember, I went to more than 200 primary schools. First I focused on the places close to the location of our Beijing team. Later, my searching area expanded further and further and even to the countryside. I went to kindergartens, primary schools, as well as the other connecting classes, such as dancing, gymnastics, martial art and acrobatics… I selected children by checking their height, weight, leg shapes and physical conditions. I taught them swimming as their first lesson. My divers soon entered the Beijing team. I was named the scouting talent model among our diving coaches in China at that time.

Was Chen Lin in your first group divers when you turned to coaching? What was her trademark character?

Chen Lin was among the second tier of divers I had trained. Chen had trained in gymnastics for four years, but she quit the sport due to timidity. It took me a lot of time to encourage her and make the breakdown of the dives easier for her. Compared with other divers, for Chen the induction practice of the new dives took much longer and was slower but she was steady and consistent when she dealt with the dives. I also asked some experienced divers to be models to show the new dive. That would make Chen comfortable and confident to try the new dive instead of fear of failure. I soon brought Chen into the national team. She worked very hard and improved very fast. When Chen won the women’s platform title at the Madrid World Championships in 1986 only a few months after a wrist fracture, I was full of tears. It was the first world title for Chinese diving in history. I turned a cowardly girl into a world champion! All the pains and hard work paid off at that moment.

Talking about diving queen Fu Mingxia, we must mention Wang Rui who upset Fu in two consecutive National Games. How did you train Wang?

I did not expect Wang could beat Fu at all before the 1993 National Games. There were at least five to six world champion veterans, such as Fu Mingxia, Tan Shuping, Chi Bin and Zhu Jinhong, while Wang was a 11-year-old kid and placed 11th in the national championships. Wang was clever in that she learned new dives fast, but forgot fast. I had to train her with more patience and repeat the same training content every day. I improved the DD of her whole routine within six months in order to compete with the veterans at the National Games. Wang made a rocket improvement as she finished 23rd in April, 1992, came 11th in September the same year, then 2nd in April 1993 and champion at the National Games in September. She shocked a group of big names, including Fu, to win the gold. Four years later, Wang retained her title on the platform at the National Games and she was called the giant-killer.

“I knew she could do this from her eyes”

What was the greatest achievement in your career? When Chen Ruolin became the first ever five-times Olympic champion in the women’s platform?

Before I trained Chen I went to Malaysia as a diving coach for seven years and returned to the Chinese national team in 2005. Chen was among the seven divers in my group. I found out that Chen was strong in mindset after she performed her best in the synchro event together with Jia Tong at the FINA World Cup in Changshu. I set my Olympic-champion goal with Chen since I did not get Chen Lin and Wang Xin to compete in the Olympic Games. I hoped we could show up at the Olympics and win the title. We suffered blows at the 2006 Asian Games and the 2007 Melbourne World Championships when Chen made some errors in the individual events and finished with two silver medals. We had problems in the technique, training arrangement, instruction during competition as we concluded our failure. Chen faced the growth problems one year before the Beijing Olympic Games. We had to train longer and harder than ever, while Chen kept far away from carbohydrates and sweets in her dinner. Finally, she took two titles on the platform in the Water Cube but it was not easy. Canadian veteran Emilie Heymans led the field by 1.65 points ahead of Chen after four dives in the women’s final. I tried to keep calm and cool in front of Chen before she started her fifth dive. I told her ‘just dive as usual, make a good start and a clean entry!’ I knew she could do this from her eyes. She did it and made the full-house of local fans crazy for her victory.

During the new cycle of the 2012 London Olympic Games, how did you train Chen and keep her best form?

She still faced the same challenge of growing in height and weight. I put on more dry-land exercises as the key content of our training regime. Chen became a veteran of the team and started to dive with another, younger partner in the synchro. It was difficult to maintain her form. She was stunned by Paola Espinosa of Mexico in the 2009 World Championships in Rome. It was a big blow to her as she realised she could not stop learning and improving. In fact, Ma Jin, coach of Espinosa, was also one of my previous divers in the Beijing team. It was interesting that my current diver was beaten by my previous diver’s student. That was a good lesson for both of us. We tried many ways to maintain Chen’s energy and physical condition. I was proud of Chen and myself when she retained both titles at the London Olympic Games. And four years later, she added one more Olympic gold medal in the synchro with young diver Liu Huixia in Rio. It was a perfect ending for a veteran platform diver who took part in three Olympic Games and swept all the events in which she competed. She made history.

“She was short and chubby as a baby panda”

When did you start to train Zhang Jiaqi and when did her talent explode? What was your first impression of Zhang?

She was short and chubby as a baby panda the first time I saw her. She was in a kids’ diving class in our training pool while I trained Chen Ruolin and other national team divers. I would not have chosen her as my diver if I were her coach on the basis of her physical condition. I thought she attended the diving class every day just for fun. I did not expect to see her in my team after the Rio Olympic Games.

Why do you give her Barbie dolls as gift for her victory?

As a coach, I need to know her psychological situation. I always buy small gifts for my divers as encouragement. She is a little girl, so l treat her just like a normal girl. Nowadays the Barbie dolls are updated as a kind of learning machine which can teach lessons, including Chinese poetry, history and English. She can learn something and also reduce the pressure while she plays with the dolls. I also try to tell her that she should not be afraid of failure in the competition. Failure is just like the moment when you make a wrong step decorating your Barbie. You can improve and correct the mistakes next time and avoid doing it ever again.

Compared with your previous divers, what is Zhang’s speciality?

Zhang has built up a very good foundation of diving techniques by professional coaches since she started diving at a very young age. She is a fast learner who handles new dives very fast and improves fast. She is better in technique, compared with others.  However, she now faces the growth problems. She needs to deal with that and fight against the increasing weight and height. I hope she can control herself and achieve her dream.

How do you see China’s future in diving?

The competition nowadays is getting closer and fiercer. There are many talented divers all over the world. For us, we face more challenges than ever, such as fewer kids learning to dive, and it is hard to select young talents, how to deal with the growth problems and how to make our divers stronger in mind. I will try my best to help more divers achieve their dreams.