Most Australians are yet to be acquainted with one man who will be diving off the three-metre springboard for them at the Tokyo Olympic games.
He is a two-time world champion in the one-metre springboard (an event not contested at the Olympic games) and a former star of China’s diving team, before moving to Australia in 2017 as a diving coach and becoming naturalised.
Shixin Li, at 33, is Australia’s oldest Olympic diving debutant and said he felt humbled to have been picked in the team for Tokyo.
“I feel very excited because from my first dive until now has been 9,699 days,” Li said.
That’s 26-and-a-half years — meaning he started diving when he was just six.
While coaching, Li began wondering whether he could make a return to competitive diving.
“Why not,” he asked himself.
“I worked hard, and I did it.”
Back in 2011, when he won his first World Championship in Russia, there was a hitch with the sound system as the flag was being raised and no national anthem was played.
Li decided to belt it out himself, earning him a standing ovation from the Russian crowd and, rumour has it, a nickname in China — ‘the Capella King’.
Comparing the gulf between his cult-like status in China to his relative anonymity in Australia is much like a comparison of training techniques between the two nations.
China’s athlete identification program selects children with potential, often putting them into full-time sports academies before they become professional.
Many are enrolled in the military, where they have access to the best facilities and training centres and can hone their craft.
Chinese divers dominate most international events — a gold-medal clean sweep is not unusual.
“In China, it’s just like a job — they pay you and there’s a lot of service. But here, everything is just by myself — you pay the hotel, pay the flight ticket, you need to pay for the training; it’s a big difference.
Family is enough motivation for Li
“Also, I have a family, so I need to make money, I have a wife and three kids.”
His oldest daughter, Lin Xi, 5, is in Australia while his almost-three-year-old twins, Victoria and Isabella, have remained with his parents in China after a family visit.
“I wanted to bring them back, but the quarantine is too long so maybe after the Olympics, or after they open the gates, maybe I will bring them back.”
Li says his five-year-old daughter has an understanding of what her father does, believing each competition means he will return home with a gift for her.
“Every time when I go to competition she will say, ‘dad, work hard, I need a medal’,” he laughs.
“But it’s very hard for me because last year with the virus, it stopped everything, it was very hard to find an income.”
Injury won’t stand in way of dream
In February, Li injured his neck preparing for the World Cup. He is still managing the problem.
“I broke a bone,” he said.
“The coach said, ‘maybe you need more patience, don’t push too much’.
“Chinese people always put a lot of pressure on ourselves… but with more patience and a lot of support and help, I have overcome this (injury).
“It’s very hard because every single dive until now, when I move my shoulder, there is some noise in my back.”
What the Olympics mean to Li
Asked what it means to have lived in China, created a new life in Australia, and now be travelling to the Tokyo games, Li said his approach was consistent.
“I don’t think too much about that… it is just like another competition,” he said.
“I think athletes are like soldiers, I will just do my best — and bring the medal back.”
The Tokyo Olympic Games diving competition runs from July 25 to August 7.