Oct. 29, 2011
By Joanne C. Gerstner
Many athletes dream of climbing to the heights of their sport and becoming famous in the process. Only a select few, such as NBA legend Michael Jordan or former Club Wolverine swimmer/Olympic star Michael Phelps, can truly become popular beyond their athletic domain.
It's rarified air, an intoxicating, and at times, stifling, place to be.
Michigan diving coach Kongzheng "KZ" Li completely understands what it's like to be in the shoes of Jordan or Phelps, as he too has attained legendary status in his native China.
Li remains a beloved figure there, thanks to his successful Olympic and international competitive diving career that spanned the 1970s and 1980s. He competed twice in the Olympics, memorably winning bronze in a 10-meter platform showdown during the 1984 Los Angeles Games against eventual winner Greg Louganis and U-M's silver medalist Bruce Kimball. Li also was part of more than 50 international competitions, winning 25 gold and 14 silver medals.
His image was, and still is, well known everywhere from Beijing to Shanghai, with random citizens stopping him to ask for an autograph. Having the support, and also the pressure, of a nation was head-turning during his teens and early 20s.
"It was a lot, yes, and at times, I think it was too much because it was very intense, all on me and I had no control," Li, now 52, said. "I lived with it, because that it is what you did. We represented more than ourselves as being an athlete, we were representing China and everything that it stood for then."
Li brings a lifetime's worth of interesting experiences and elite training processes to the men and women of Michigan's diving teams. He's in his second year coaching the Wolverines, and if he has his way, this will be the place he stays until he retires from coaching.
Li's 20-year coaching resume is nearly as extensive as his competitive one, with experiences as the head diving coach at the University of Minnesota, Texas Aquatics, Team Orlando, U.S. Elite Diving Academy, and stints overseas. He's also been a head coach or assistant for the U.S. for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, two World Championships, and one Pan-American Games.
He's been everywhere around the world, as a coach and a diver, and his heart is now clearly home in Ann Arbor.
"This is the best place for me, I feel it in me here," Li said, softly patting his heart with his right hand. "You know when things are right. I love the coaches, the divers, we have the facilities, we have a wonderful university, and we have an excellent tradition to continue here. I believe in honoring tradition, it is part of my culture, and that is what I want to do."
Li is referencing the dedication of Michigan's diving well area to legendary Wolverine diver and coach Dick Kimball in Canham Natatorium. Kimball, who was an individual NCAA diving champion as well as part of three NCAA title-winning teams in the late 1950s, went on to coach the Wolverines and five U.S. Olympic teams from 1958 until his retirement in 2002.
And in a twist of fate and history, Kimball is also the father of Bruce Kimball, the same diver who edged Li out in the 1984 Olympics.
Li laughs at the irony, seeing the Kimball name every day at work.
"You never know where life will take you, that is for sure," Li said. "I had great respect for the Kimball name, always, as Dick is a true legend and Bruce was a very talented diver. I am here to carry on and honor what Dick Kimball did here at Michigan."
Senior diver Amanda Lohman is thrilled to be coached by Li, already having a pretty good idea about his diving accomplishments before he came to Michigan.
"What I like the most about him is he's always trying to be so positive, he totally knows what we're going through if we're nervous before a meet," Lohman said. "We always get into a circle before a meet, and he says, 'Let's go dive -- if it is good, great. If the dive is not so good, forget about it.'"
Li's favorite phrase, according to Lohman, is "80 percent," which means he always wants his divers competing with power, but not so much that they are undisciplined or out of control.
Li is a free-spoken and open individual, unafraid to make fun of himself or offer an opinion on serious issues. He left China in 1985, privately wanting to have more personal freedom and to pursue his training away from the national system.
His whole life, to that point, had been dictated by the Chinese government. He was selected, as a child, to become an elite athlete. A provincial sports official came to his school when he was 10 to pick out the most athletically adept children for placement into the government-driven training programs.
China was deep into the Cultural Revolution, and Li grew up having to recite passages from the "Little Red Book," a compilation of quotes from Communist Party leader Mao Tse-Tung. Li loved sports, and had his eye on playing table tennis, gymnastics or badminton.
He was chosen for diving, brought to the diving well, and forced to audition for the official. Failure meant being left behind, and Li did not want to disappoint.
But there was one not-so-small issue: Li did not know how to swim, and the dark and cold foreboding waters of the deep diving well terrified him.
"I looked, but I could not see the bottom of the pool, but they told me I had to jump, I had to go," Li remembered.
And so Li took his first attempt, doing enough to impress. He was now in training to become a diver. An unrelenting schedule was spent over years at the sports school, learning technique in bracingly-cold, unheated outdoor pools, under the watchful eyes of demanding coaches. Li excelled, and served notice he was a diver to watch in 1974, when he won the 10-meter platform event in the Asian Games in Tehran, Iran.
That was the start of his becoming a household name in China. People wanted to hear Li speak, and he didn't have much to say at age 15.
"So I repeated things I memorized from the Red Book, really, that's what I did," Li said. "It sounds crazy, but it was probably a smart thing for me to do at that time."
Li's first Olympics would have been the 1980 Moscow Games, but China, like the U.S. and 63 other countries, boycotted over then-U.S.S.R.'s invasion of Afghanistan. Li continued to compete, and had his Olympic moments in 1984 and in the 1988 Seoul Games.
Li's departure from China, with the government's blessing in 1985, was a first. Athletes had left China before but usually as a defection. Li proposed a plan, wanting to serve as a de facto ambassador to the West, taking part in a cultural and athletic exchange of diving training methods. The government greenlighted the idea and Li continued to train in the U.S. and compete for China.
His successful move likely opened doors down the road for other Chinese athletes, such as former NBA star Yao Ming and 2011 French Open champion Li Na to train and compete outside of the country with the government's permission.
"I am very proud of that. People always ask me how I defected to come here, and I can honestly say I did not," Li said. "What I did was never done before, and I know I am very lucky. I knew I needed freedom, I worried about being put in jail like many others for saying something wrong."
Li remains on friendly terms with his home country, going back for competitions and visits. He admits he's still recognized, and receives overtures from government officials asking him to come back to lead China's diving program.
The attention is flattering, but Li likes where he is today.
"I have had the fame, it was fine, but this is where I am meant to be," Li said. "Life is good. Very good."