Li dives in as new U coach

Ryan Schuster

Kongzheng Li has certainly come a long way.
Eleven years ago when Li moved to the United States from his native country of China he could barely even speak the language.
“I didn’t know hardly any English when I moved to Texas,” Li said. “I only knew part of the alphabet and a few names.”
In 1985, Li moved to the United States to attend the University of Texas-Austin.
Last spring, he has been named the new men’s and women’s diving coach at Minnesota.
Former diving coach Doug Shaffer stepped down last year, following seven years of coaching the Gophers diving program.
The men’s and women’s athletics departments, women’s swimming coach Jean Freeman and men’s swimming coach Dennis Dale interviewed three applicants for the job and choose Li.
“It was a tough decision,” women’s swimming coach Jean Freeman said. “We had some very good coaches. (Li) just seemed like our best choice.”
Li took the position at Minnesota over a similar job opportunity at Arizona. The native of the People’s Republic of China has also coached collegiate diving at Texas and George Washington. Before turning to coaching, Li was a world-class diver in China.
He was only 11 years old when his diving career started auspiciously. Li said China’s government selected him to train for the Olympic diving team because of his physical attributes.
“When I started diving, I didn’t even know how to swim,” Li said. “I was lucky. I didn’t realize I was that kind of athlete.”
He was also lucky that his family lived in Nanning, China — the same city the sports federation for which he trained was located. Consequently, Li was able to see his family about once a week while he was growing up because the federation that housed, fed, schooled and trained him was so close. Some of his other friends only got to go home once a year since they lived too far away.
As a kid, Li preferred playing pingpong to diving, in part because he hated diving into the frigid outdoor pools in China during the winter.
Now an American citizen, Li is quick to criticize the Chinese government for their treatment of athletes.
“Sometimes this sport is more concentrated and kind of like an army,” Li said. “(In China) diving is run by the government and treated more like a job. You couldn’t quit. It’s no fun. I think they need to change the current system.”
His excessive training as a youngster helped Li make the Chinese Olympic diving team four times from 1976-1988. He was unable to compete in either the 1976 or 1980 summer games because China did not send a diving squad those years because of political conflicts with other countries.
Even though Li didn’t get much national press early in his career because of missing his first two Olympics, he was still a very dominating diver. In 1980, Li beat American great Greg Louganis in an international competition in London.
Two years later at the World Championships, he became the first Chinese diver to compete in both the 10-meter platform and 3-meter springboard events. Finally, in 1984 Li got his chance at the summer Olympics in Los Angeles and earned a bronze medal.
Li adjusted to coaching at Minnesota as easily as he adapted to life in the United States. Just a month into his new position, the 37-year-old already has a great rapport with his athletes.
“He gets along very well with the divers,” Dale said. “He gives them his best and he also demands the best from them.”