Divers lead charge for China at swimming worlds

JUSTIN BERGMAN - Associated Press
July 13, 2011
A worker walks near the outdoor diving pool Wednesday, July 13, 2011 at Shanghai Oriental Sports Center in Shanghai, China, ahead of the 14th FINA World Swimming Championships,  which start from July 16. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)
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A worker walks near the outdoor diving pool Wednesday, July 13, 2011 at Shanghai Oriental Sports Center in Shanghai, China, ahead of the 14th FINA World Swimming Championships, which start from July 16. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)

SHANGHAI (AP) — Performing on home soil in Shanghai will add China's top divers' motivation when the world aquatics championships open this weekend.

The Chinese team has long dominated the diving portion of the worlds, winning 14 medals in Rome in 2009, including seven out of 10 golds. But in recent years, the marquee swimming events have tended to be showdowns between the American, Australian and European teams, with China lagging behind.

This year, however, with the worlds in China for the first time, Chinese swimmers are expected to fare much better, which could give the hosts their best-ever showing at the championships. China and the United States each won 29 medals overall in Rome, including 11 golds.

"We have conducted very systematic practices and exercises and the whole team is in very high spirits," said He Chong, the defending champion in the men's 3-meter springboard. "I am confident I'll be able to defend my championship in the 3-meter springboard. I want to give a wonderful performance for all of my supporters."

Teammate Huo Liang, the reigning Olympic and world champion in the men's 10-meter synchro with partner Lin Yue, is also hoping for a good showing, particularly given that he is from Shanghai.

"I'm very happy to compete in my hometown," Huo said Tuesday. "It inspires my motivation."

The Chinese squad features a bevy of former world and Olympic champions.

Wu Minxia, the veteran of the women's team at 25, will be attempting to win her fifth world title in the 3-meter synchro — but her first with new partner He Zi. Wu's old partner, 14-time Olympic and world champion Guo Jingjing, retired earlier this year.

The men's squad also includes Qin Kai, who has won four world titles and one Olympic gold in the 1-meter and 3-meter springboard events.

Even with such star power, however, team manager Zhou Jihong has been cautious about predicting a sweep of the diving golds in Shanghai.

"I don't mean that we are unlikely to achieve that goal. I just want to say that it's very difficult," Zhou told Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency, last month. "Our rivals are improving fast, especially in the men's events."

Those rivals include Americans David Boudia, the silver medalist in the 10-meter synchro with partner Thomas Finchum in Rome, and 31-year-old Troy Dumais, a four-time world silver medalist who is competing in his eighth and last championships.

"Everyone around the world knows how dominant the Chinese have been, but with that said, we're really ready for this competition," Boudia said. "The world championships always paints a different picture — you never know what's going to happen."

The British team will be led by 17-year-old Tom Daley, the defending champion in the 10-meter platform event, and Peter Waterfield, a silver medalist in the 10-meter synchro at the 2004 Athens Olympics. One of Daley's main competitors, Australian diver Matthew Mitcham, the 2008 Olympic gold medalist in the 10-meter platform, pulled out of the championships earlier this month due to an abdominal injury.

On the women's side, Paola Espinosa of Mexico is back to defend her gold in the 10-meter platform, while three-time Olympic medalist Emilie Heymans and Jennifer Abel could contend for medals for Canada in the 3-meter springboard events.

When the swimming begins on July 24, all eyes will be on Michael Phelps and Cesar Cielo — if Cielo is allowed to defend his titles in the 50- and 100-meter freestyle after testing positive for the banned substance furosemide.

Cielo blames a contaminated food supplement for the positive test in May. After Brazilian officials let Cielo off with a warning, swimming's governing body appealed the case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Switzerland. A decision is pending.

Phelps has struggled this season to regain the form that saw him win eight gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, though he won two races in a tune-up event for the worlds in Montreal earlier this month. He could swim in up to seven events in Shanghai.

Australia, meanwhile, is looking to improve on its lackluster performance in 2009 — the team won only four gold medals, far below its usual haul.

The women's team is particularly strong, led by Stephanie Rice, a three-time gold medalist at the Beijing Olympics, as well as three swimmers ranked No. 1 in the world in their events this year: Alicia Coutts (100 butterfly), Kylie Palmer (200 freestyle) and Belinda Hocking (200 backstroke).

Australia coach Leigh Nugent said last Friday that his sprinters can't let the controversy surrounding Cielo's participation become a distraction.

"The message to our athletes will be that whoever stands up to the blocks in the finals are the people you're going to be racing for medals against and it doesn't matter what's gone on before that," he said.

China's hopes rest on 19-year-old Sun Yang, who was only 0.87 seconds off Grant Hackett's 2001 world record in the men's 1,500 freestyle at the Asian Games in November. Liu Zige, the 2008 Olympic gold medalist in the 200 butterfly, and Zhao Jing, the defending world 50 backstroke champion, lead the women's squad.

Among the top Europeans are Germany's Paul Biedermann, the two-time defending champion in the men's 200- and 400-meter freestyle, and Britta Steffen, who captured the women's 50- and 100-meter freestyle titles in Rome. Frederica Pellegrini of Italy will also return to defend her titles in the 200- and 400-meter freestyle.

The men's water polo competition could come down to a duel between Olympic champion Hungary and defending world champion Serbia. The United States has won the last two women's titles, though the Americans will face a stiff challenge from Australia and China.