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LONDON (AP) — The Chinese have their sights on an unprecedented diving sweep.
The Americans are feeling confident about their chances of winning a few more medals.
Now that’s something new.
With the icy precision everyone has come to expect from the world’s diving powerhouse, Wu Minxia and partner He Zi captured their sport’s first gold medal of London Olympics with a commanding performance in the women’s 3-meter synchronized event on Sunday.
Everyone else was playing for silver, which may become a theme at the Olympic Aquatics Centre. China nearly swept the diving medals four years ago, winning seven events before Australia’s Matthew Mitcham pulled off a huge upset from the 10-meter platform.
“It feels normal,” Wu said in Mandarin. “I really don’t have that many emotions.”
While this may have been a ho-hum result for the Chinese, the U.S. team was downright giddy. It had been 12 long years since the once-powerful Americans even claimed a medal, but Kelci Bryant and Abby Johnston broke the drought by taking silver.
“Our curse is out of the way,” said Bryant, who finished fourth in springboard synchro with a different partner in Beijing.
Now, they’re looking to add to the total. While the Chinese will be favored again in men’s 10-meter platform, the Americans are hopeful about their prospects with David Boudia and Nick McCrory. Plus, the British should be in the mix with the home crowd cheering on Tom Daley and his synchro partner, Pete Waterfield.
“You could dive your backside off and come in sixth,” said Steve Foley, the high-performance director for USA Diving. “That’s a great field. But certainly David and Nick are right in contention to win medals. And now, they don’t have to say, ‘Oh, I have to worry about getting a medal to get the monkey off our backs.’ It takes a bit of stress off those to follow.”
Since Foley took over three years ago, the Americans have taken a different approach. They no longer focus on what they did in the past, such as winning every Olympic diving medal from 1928-52, or extending their domination into the 1980s behind Greg Louganis.
As Foley likes to point out, the U.S. hasn’t had much to cheer about for years. The Americans managed just two bronze medals at Atlanta in 1996. Four years later, Laura Wilkinson won a surprising gold on the platform, that was their only medal of those games. The team was totally shut out at the last two Olympics.
“We’ve got to forget the great USA Diving history because, really, that was 20-plus years ago,” Foley said. “The glory days were gone a long time ago. I think we just needed to be realistic. Let’s build the class of 2012 and make a new beginning.”
That new beginning is off to a good start.
After receiving their medals — Bryant cried and Johnston smiled broadly on the podium — Bryant reminded Johnston to hold up her prize as they posed for a gaggle of photographers on the deck.
“Ahhhh!!! So happy for our girls!!” tweeted Boudia, who also will compete in 10-meter individual. “Great start.”
Wilkinson chimed in, too.
“So proud of you girls!” she tweeted.
The Chinese tandem led throughout the five-dive round and totaled 346.20 points, giving Wu her fifth Olympic medal. She is just one shy of countrywoman Guo Jingjing’s record of six medals.
Guo was China’s superstar diver until her retirement 1½ years ago. Wu has three golds, one silver and one bronze. She could earn another in the individual springboard event, where she has medaled twice before and will compete against He.
China is coming off a sweep of the golds at last year’s world championships in Shanghai, but no country has taken all eight golds since synchro doubled the number of Olympic diving events in 2000.
“I am impressed by them. That’s one of my training methods, just watching them and how they do it,” Johnston said. “If they mess up, then you have an opportunity.”
Johnston and Bryant finished second with 321.90 points, giving the Americans their first-ever medal in synchro. Emilie Heymans and Jennifer Abel earned the bronze with 316.80 for Canada’s first medal of the games.
The U.S. duo was third after the first round, then moved up to second and stayed there despite a mere 1.5-point lead over Canada after the fourth round. Bryant deliberately didn’t watch the scoreboard during the competition.
“I have all the faith in the world when I get up on that board Kelci is going to hit her dive and I’m pretty sure she thinks I’m going to hit mine,” Johnston said.
Heymans claimed her fourth career Olympic medal, making her the first female diver to earn a medal at four consecutive games. She took silver on individual 10-meter in Beijing, bronze in synchro platform in 2004 and silver in the same event in Sydney.
“It’s really great and I hope it’s going to inspire the other athletes to do well,” Heymans said.
Foley had emphasized synchro success since coming on board after Beijing. He looks for consistency and divers who can match each other’s quality of dives. Each of the three synchro teams — the U.S. didn’t qualify a team in women’s 10-meter synchro — has one veteran Olympian and one rookie. Four years ago, 10 of the team’s 12 divers had never been to the Olympics.
Unlike the individual events, synchro diving goes directly to the final at the Olympics, with no preliminaries or semifinals.
“If you have the performance of your life you’re going to be happy,” Johnston said. “We had the performance of our lives and I’m ecstatic.”
Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963
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