When Ron Zwierlein turns on his TV this week and watches Qiu Bo and China's other divers go for the gold at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, he'll think back 34 years and recall his own role in that country's development as a dominant world power in the sport.
China's diving team was a relative newcomer to global competition in 1978, when Mr. Zwierlein, a retired director of athletics at Bowling Green State University, got a phone call from U.S. diving officials. Would he escort the People's Republic of China team during the Cleveland portion of its American tour, expose them to Americans' training regimen and techniques, and help prepare them for the pressures of international competition?
The opportunity to be part of China's gradual emergence from behind the Bamboo Curtain was irresistible to Mr. Zwierlein, at the time the swimming and diving coach at John Carroll University in Cleveland.
What followed were 10 days or so of rigorous practices, joint exhibitions with American divers, and a heavy dose of life in the United States for a dozen Chinese athletes who spoke no English.
For the Americans, it was a chance to hone their skills, although against clearly inferior competition, while they prepared for the 1980 Olympics in Moscow. For the Chinese, it was an opportunity to compete against the best. Among the U.S. divers in Cleveland: an emerging star, 18-year-old Greg Louganis.
Two years later, the United States' boycott of the Moscow Olympics kept the Americans home. Although China also boycotted, their divers' 1978 visit to the States started a process. Today, the Chinese are the best in the world.
"They were here to learn from us," Mr. Zwierlein says. "And they were very good students."
The Chinese videotaped every move the Americans and their coaches made at the pool, and by week's end had adopted even the body language and hand signals that were second nature for the U.S. team and coaches.
At the 1984 Games in Los Angeles, Chinese divers won silver and bronze medals, behind Mr. Louganis, in their first Olympic competition in the sport.
Although the Chinese practiced for hours every day and performed in meets with the Americans at night in Cleveland, their visit had its lighter moments. Just getting them fed was an adventure.
Mr. Zwierlein recalls: "We took them to a nice restaurant the first day, but they were so confused by the menu, it took forever. Thousand Island dressing? What's that?"
Because dogs are food in some parts of the world, imagine their surprise to find "hot dogs" on an American menu.
With the help of their interpreter, one athlete ordered sugar-cured ham. When his meal arrived, he poured three packets of sugar on the ham.
"After that," Mr. Zwierlein says, "we started taking them to buffets."
Mr. Zwierlein also escorted the Chinese to a Cleveland Indians baseball game at old Municipal Stadium. He tried, with limited success, to explain the game through their interpreter. They grasped the idea that a home run was worth "one point," he explained, but the concept of how a batter was awarded first base without hitting the ball baffled them.
Informed that a player had just stolen second base, one of the Chinese divers asked, in all earnestness: "Are the police going to come and get him?"
The Chinese learned at least one American phrase they could say in English. A John Carroll diver taught them: "Hey, what's happenin', man?" It became their mantra, covering a host of situations.
Mr. Zwierlein was himself a talented diver at BGSU in the late 1960s, and was team captain his senior year. But there were no Olympic opportunities for him.
"I aspired to be an Olympian," he says, "and I was a solid diver, but I never won a MAC [Mid-American Conference] championship." He achieved substantial success as a diving coach, however, training 19 All-Americans at John Carroll.
Three years after his adventure with the Chinese divers, he became swimming and diving coach at Bowling Green, following in the grand tradition of Sam Cooper and Tom Stubbs. Eventually, he became the athletic director.
But he'll never forget the friends he made from China, or how much new appreciation he gained for the freedoms he enjoys in America.
"They had two guys traveling with them whose job was to prevent defections," he says. "I was a patriotic American before, but I became a real flag-waver after that experience."
In 1978, the Chinese team was regarded by many in the global diving community in much the same condescending manner as the Jamaican bobsled team at the 1988 Winter Olympics. After years of hard work and regimented dedication, those days for the Chinese are long gone.
The Chinese are not intimidated by that whole "degree of difficulty" thing. They're the overwhelming favorites again in London. And Bowling Green's Ron Zwierlein was a witness to when it all started.
Thomas Walton is the retired Editor and Vice President of The Blade. His column appears every other Monday.
Contact him at: email@example.com