Feature: Chinese diving coach rooted in Malaysia for over two decades

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by Sportswriter Zhou Xin

BEIJING, May 23 (Xinhua) -- Dear Mom: "Let's make up for all the Mother's Days I missed over the years. I am so grateful for your teachings and blessed to have you in my life!"

Dear Dad: "Let's celebrate all the holidays together while we're together. Meeting you is a blessing, and now we are your support! You raised me up, and I'll accompany you until old age!"

When 79-year-old Chinese diving coach Zhou Xiyang and her husband Shang Zhi welcomed three Malaysian disciples, who are like their own daughters, they laughed, cried, and hugged tightly. They spent a wonderful Mother's Day together on May 12 and later traveled to Weihai in east China for a family reunion.

It has been 30 years since Zhou went to Malaysia to teach diving, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations between China and Malaysia. The bond between coach and disciples shares a passion for sports across the two countries.


"I have spent almost my entire life in diving, either diving myself or coaching children," Zhou told Xinhua.

Zhou can be called the "first young genius" in Chinese diving, as she participated in and soared to victory at the first National Games of the People's Republic of China at the age of 14 in 1959, just over a year after switching from gymnastics to diving.

China's young diving talents also include Fu Mingxia, who shocked the world by winning the women's 10m platform championship at the Barcelona Olympic Games in 1992 when she was 13 years and 345 days old, and Quan Hongchan, who claimed the women's 10m platform gold medal with record-high results at the Tokyo Olympic Games in 2021 at age 14.

"In 1958, I entered the Beijing diving team when I was 13 and started my diving career with tears. No one could have imagined that I would win the national championship the following year. I still feel unbelievable whenever I look back," Zhou said.

Recalling her early years of training, Zhou described the hardships she faced with freezing temperatures in and out of the water, persevering through challenging conditions in an outdoor pool in Beijing year-round.

"Being young, I was trembling with cold and cried all the time as I could not finish the training plan compared to the older divers. However, I had to hold back my tears and work harder."

The first Chinese National Games took place in September 1959. But the first thing that came to Zhou's mind was "extremely cold."

"There was a stove next to the pool. We had to put on big and long coats and warm ourselves by the fire after each dive."

Zhou overcame the difficulties of the wooden springboard and experienced rivals, leading all 10 dives from heats, semifinals to finals, winning her first national title as the youngest champion of the first National Games.


Zhou became a coach for the Beijing Diving Team. In 1994, she embarked on a new chapter in her life when Malaysia, host of the 1998 Commonwealth Games, invited coaches from various countries for different sports. Zhou was sent to Malaysia by China's State General Administration of Sports.

Zhou was assigned to Perak, where there was only one diving pool but no divers, dryland training facilities, or equipment.

"I started from zero. I had to find students myself and build up dryland facilities by myself. I personally designed the land training facilities in Ipoh, the capital of Perak. I measured the dimensions and guided the installation of protective mats."

Zhou went to schools one by one, persuading principals to select hundreds of students based on their physical shape, examining their legs, knees, and toes.

"I started with teaching swimming, then selected dozens of students to learn basic diving techniques, and gradually built a talent ladder for diving. It was very difficult to gain the understanding and support of the children, parents, and schools during that time."

Six months later, Zhou brought six kids to Kuala Lumpur to form the national team, where she spent seven years leading her divers to participate in various international competitions.

Zhou's young diver Leong Mun Yee won Malaysia's first-ever gold medal in diving at the 1995 Asian Pacific Swimming and Diving Championships held in Busan, South Korea.

In 2002, Zhou returned to Perak to continue her work of training young divers, recruiting students from schools, teaching them swimming and diving day after day.

Over her 22-year coaching career in Malaysia, Zhou cultivated a strong diving talent pool, producing multiple national champions and international medalists, including Leong Mun Yee, one of the shining stars, 2017 world champion Cheong Jun Hoong, and other international-level divers. Muhammad Syafig Puteh now plays a key role in men's springboard on the national team.

"The Chinese diving team earned the fame as the 'Dream Team' after generations of inheritance and hard work. In my heart, I am a Chinese coach sent to Malaysia. I have tried hard to fulfill my mission with dedication and contribute my efforts to Malaysia and to the world of diving. This is my greatest pride and honor as a Chinese diving person," Zhou said.


Known as the Malaysian diving princess, Leong Mun Yee was selected for diving by Zhou when she was 10. Zhou treated her like her own daughter, eating, living, traveling, and training together most of the time. Zhou took her back to her apartment every weekend, riding a bicycle with Leong sitting on the back seat.

"After I left the national team, Leong had a hard time in diving. She came to Perak and told me she wanted to quit diving. I tried to persuade her, discussed it with her family, and adjusted her mentality and technical details. She later returned to the national team and achieved many results under the guidance of another Chinese coach, Yang Zhuliang," Zhou said.

Leong, who captured multiple medals from the Asian Games, Commonwealth Games, Southeast Asian Games, world championships, and other international events, extended her reputation to the age of 36 after competing in the Tokyo Olympic Games in 2021. She is now a coach and team manager of the Malaysia diving team.

Cheong Jun Hoong was one of the second batch of disciples selected by Zhou. She won the women's 1m springboard at the national championships after only two years of training. But, due to her young age and lack of experience, she was frustrated with her inconsistent international performance. Cheong considered retirement several times, but Zhou encouraged her to keep fighting.

"I have always believed in Cheong and kept telling her 'she is a talent' when she encountered setbacks," Zhou said.

Cheong later celebrated her highlight moment when she stood on top of the women's 10m platform at the 2017 Budapest World Championships, becoming the first-ever Malaysian world champion diver.

During Zhou's 22-year overseas coaching career, Zhou's husband, Shang Zhi, a handball coach, not only supported her career but also coached in Malaysia and led the team to participate in the Southeast Asian Games. The couple has formed a deep bond with their Malaysian disciples, who affectionately refer to them as "Mom" and "Dad."

Cheong was among the three Malaysian divers to travel to China with Zhou and Shang recently for Mother's Day. In their eyes: "A teacher for a day, a parent for life. We contribute our achievements to you as dear Mom and Dad."

"Diving is my life. We are just a microcosm of Chinese coaches overseas. We are fortunate to bring the passion for diving and become the bridge between the two countries," Zhou said. Enditem

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