LONDON, March 12 (Reuters) - Standing in neat lines in a south London gym, a squad of hand-picked, tracksuited youngsters stretch their arms in unison, counting together in Mandarin.
Taking the proverb ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ quite literally, Crystal Palace diving club has turned to Chinese expertise to foster Britain’s future Olympic hopes.
“We always had good divers. But I thought that if we wanted medals en masse then we would have to do what the Chinese did,” club founder and former world champion Chris Snode said.
Snode made the decision to recruit Chinese coaches seven years ago when London won the bid to stage the 2012 Olympics, and now 15 of the approximately 460 children in the program are in the top England talent squad, with their eyes set on Rio 2016.
Key to the program, says Snode, is that rather than waiting for potential divers to come to them, they proactively go into schools to seek out youngsters with the right kind of physical attributes to excel at the sport.
Those characteristics include flexibility, upper body strength and co-ordination.
By the end of this month, the club will have tested 100,000 seven- to 10-year-olds across the British capital, looking for perfectly pointed toes and naturally loose Achilles tendons.
More than 90 percent of the young divers at the club have been chosen this way.
It is a far cry from the 1970s, when Snode took up diving relatively late after some free vouchers were sent to his school, and was able to build on his natural ability because he happened to live near a diving pool with good coaches.
“In the old days, you had to be lucky,” he said.
The Crystal Palace training program is led by Chen Wen, who was Britain’s Olympic coach in 2004 and 2008 and Australia’s coach in 2000.
Wen and his team have introduced greater discipline and hard work - getting the children to put in more hours and spending much more time practising tumbles in a ‘dry gym’ that builds the athletes’ confidence.
They have also brought in innovative new methods of using harnesses, bouncy boards and other equipment.
“What they do is logical, it’s fascinating to watch,” Snode added.
The squad is dominated by girls, who the coaches say are more likely to do activities such as gymnastics and dance that complement diving and build up early flexibility.
“It’s harder to find boys,” admits assistant coach Chen Yang, shouting advice to the practising divers from the side of the pool. “They all play football.”
That’s not a problem China has, he adds, though the desire to perform to an audience and plethora of competitions that are a feature of British schoolchildren’s lives are a rare advantage Westerners have over the Chinese.
China’s divers are currently dominating the sport, winning all the diving golds at last year’s world championships and firm favourites to sweep the medals in August.
Britain’s main London 2012 medal hope Tom Daley, who became a household name when he competed in Beijing at the age of 14 and then won the 10-metre world platform championship a year later, has been struggling to live up to national expectations.
However, Daley’s high profile has helped spark interest in the sport among young Britons, with the numbers of entries in the country’s club competitions rising significantly.
“Tom’s been very good for British diving,” Snode said.
The Olympics coming to home territory is largely shrugged off by the youngsters, most of whom have not been able to secure seats in the much-criticised ticket lottery, meaning they won’t be able to see their older compatriots diving at the Aquatics Centre just a few miles away.
But the minds of these confident young athletes are more on Rio than London.
“One day we’ll get to the Olympics,” said 10-year-old Anais. “So we don’t need tickets, do we?” (Editing by John O‘Brien)