Up In The Air -- A USC Diving Feature

Feb. 25, 2009

By Ashley Van HorneUSC Sports Information Student Assistant

It's another 80-degree February afternoon at the USC McDonald Swim Stadium and to the joy of those passing by, a line of divers effortlessly flip and twist their bodies in the air, plummeting towards the water as far as 10 meters below.

A man sits in the shade with watchful eyes, taking time to occasionally call out to a diver, making exaggerated hand motions to the athletes repeatedly risking their necks for the thrill of the sport. The man is Hongping Li, USC's immensely successful diving coach of almost a decade.

'I've known Hongping since I was about 10 years old. He used to coach me back in Mission Viejo. He was tough, man. He used to make me cry,' laughed Steven Starks, a promising sophomore diver and USC's only individual point scorer at the 2008 NCAA Championships.

'He probably still cries,' Li joked.

Although known for being a tough coach, Li is respected and trusted by his athletes - two very necessary elements for a successful diving program. The dangerous circumstances surrounding such a precise, technical sport like diving foster a unique necessity for a strong bond of trust between athlete and coach. Even while observing from the sidelines, one can see Li speaking in a sort of secret language to his divers, using a specific code of hand and body movements the divers can see from even the highest of platforms.

'If the diver trusts me and I trust him, and the diver knows that I have the knowledge to give him the correct instructions, he is able to have confidence in himself and that helps his performance,' said Li. 'If your divers do not trust you and don't believe in you, then they will fail - they won't even have the courage to get up and try.'

A coach as widely respected by Li certainly has no problem generating this bond of trust with his divers, as reflected in his immense success during his nine years with the university.

'I have a great relationship with Hongping. I really trust him and that makes me comfortable during all of my dives and you definitely need that getting up on the platform,' stated Victoria Ishimatsu, a star freshman diver. 'You really do have to constantly stay focused and concentrate. It fatigues my brain!'

The intense necessity for the bond of trust is just a small part of the focus on the mental game when entering the sport of diving. When up as high as 10 meters away from the water, there is little room for error. Self-doubt has no place on the platform.

'Diving is 95% mental. My four words that I repeat to myself are patience, relax, aggressive and confidence. You constantly have to believe in yourself, trust yourself, stay relaxed and stay confident, but also stay aggressive in pursuing your victory,' explained Starks.

One of the reasons that Li is able to prepare his divers with such a sound mental philosophy stems from his own personal background as a diver. Hailing from Beijing, Li was a 12-time national champion and a two-time Olympian representing the People's Republic of China. His diving resume also includes Pac-10 and NCAA titles while competing for USC in the late 1980s. It is without a doubt that Li's personal passion for diving overflows into his passion for coaching at his alma-mater, a position he feels honored to assume.

'My personal background does allow me to bring more passion to the table than someone without my experiences. The kids can look at me and know that I have the personal experience, the Olympic experience, and coaching experience - so they come in with a very high level of respect already. It's easy for me to transition dedicating my passion from diving to coaching,' Li reflected seriously.

And on a team that houses a few potential future Olympians such as Starks, his freshman teammate Harrison Jones and Ishimatsu, Li's Olympic accomplishments provide his athletes with a deeper understanding of their goals and how to achieve them. After being a two-time Olympian for the People's Republic of China, Li served as an assistant coach on the 2004 U.S. Olympic Diving Team and has personally coached several athletes who have gone onto the Olympics from USC as well as other international meets.

'Hongping's Olympic experience is one of the reasons why I wanted to come here, knowing his influences and Olympic athletes he has trained as well as what he has accomplished personally,' future Olympic hopeful Starks said.

'It's definitely helpful to connect on that level,' Ishimatsu added.

Although Li's success on the Olympic front of diving impresses many, the bulk of his awards and prestige come from what he has done in the past nine years for the USC diving teams. Li is a two-time recipient of the NCAA Women's Diving Coach of the Year award in 2002 and 2006, and has won the Pac-10 version of the honor five times. Although he is a highly decorated coach, he emphasizes remaining humble and focused throughout his seasons at USC.

'I feel grateful that there is a lot of talent running through the program that I have been coaching for the last nine years. I truly believe as a coach, it doesn't matter how capable, gifted or brilliant you are - without the talent you work with, it means nothing,' Li stated.

And as in seasons past, this year Li is certainly surrounded by the level of talent he feels propels the program day in and day out. For instance, Jones and Ishimatsu have been named to the USA National Diving Team and will represent the U.S. at the 2009 Canada Cup in Montreal. The pair (as well as three other Trojan divers) has also already qualified for the NCAA Zone E Championships (the meet prior to the NCAA Championships). Incoming freshman Ariel Rittenhouse will join her future teammates on the National team, competing for the U.S. at the 2009 World Championships in Rome, Italy. A 2008 Olympian, Rittenhouse will surely be a rising star for Li's diving program when she enrolls at USC in the fall.

Li has truly brought the USC diving program leaps and bounds - taking what has always been a strong and competitive diving program to new heights. He has coached six men's and women's divers to a combined 26 All-American honors and five NCAA titles. Among his notable former pupils is Canadian Olympian Blythe Hartley, who won five NCAA and eight Pac-10 titles under Li. Not one season has passed since Li commanded the program that USC has not produced an All-American (first or second team). His keys to success remain relatively simple and to the point.

'You've got to put hard work into it, do your best and have a good overall disciplined program, making sure the kids are training hard and liking what they are doing. You have to make sure they make progress each day, month and year. Making better divers is the best reflection of my work,' Li said.

The women's diving squad includes Ishimatsu, junior Alexis Demond, sophomore Christine Petrilli (injured) and redshirt freshman Emily Bucko (injured). The men's divers include Starks, Jones, sophomore Greg Miller and freshmen Robbie Taylor. Many will challenge for Pac-10 titles, NCAA berths and perhaps NCAA crowns. Li has high hopes for his squad in the postseason, which begins today at the 2009 Pac-10 Championships.

Diving can often be a very lonely sport, emphasizing the individual nature of the competition. For most of their lives, divers are pitted against each other, standing alone in competition. However, at the collegiate level, the athletes are given a chance to be part of a team, competing with the men and women's swim teams in dual meets throughout the season. Li appreciates the opportunity for his divers to experience team values, and the divers show great enthusiasm when talking about finally being part of a group.

'I love being part of the Trojan family and having the swimming and diving be a team. We're always so used to the individual stuff, but now we have the pressure to do well for ourselves as well as the team as a whole. I love representing USC - walking through the airport wearing our USC gear and seeing people's reactions is so much fun,' Starks said.

'It's so encouraging getting up to do a dive and hearing all the swimmers cheer for you,' Ishimatsu agreed. 'We really support each other. Being a Trojan is absolutely everything I thought it would be and more.'

And so with every jump, flip and twist for the rest of the season, the divers of USC move forward with Li as their watchful mentor, continuing to make strides to fulfill the high goals he has set for them. Although the season's success is yet to be determined, one thing is certain - that Li will continue to keep his promise of making better divers every day.

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