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China still the diving superpower, but Boudia shows rest of the world is slowly catching up

08/12/2012 12:37 EDT | Updated 10/11/2012 05:12 EDT
LONDON - China is still the powerhouse of Olympic diving.

But ever so slowly, the rest of the world is catching up.

Just ask David Boudia, who's leaving London with a gold medal around his neck.

Showing the Chinese can be defeated, Boudia pulled off a stunning upset of Qiu Bo in 10-meter platform Saturday on the final night of competition at the Olympic Aquatics Centre, giving the Americans their first diving gold since the 2000 Sydney Games.

"This shows the world is coming after China," Boudia said. "They're not as dominant anymore."

Still better than anyone else, for sure. The Chinese captured six of the eight diving golds in London, but that was actually a dropoff from their seven golds in 2008. Again, they were denied a sweep of every event, which has become their daunting standard.

"Pressure is a strange thing," said Lin Yue, who finished sixth on the platform. "You can't really see it, but sometimes you do feel it."

Boudia was as calm as can be. Flipping and twisting off the big tower on his final dive, Boudia ripped through the water and received the best total score of any dive in the competition, just enough to edge Qiu by 1.80 points.

It was the closest finish in men's platform since Greg Louganis won the last of his gold medals in 1988, and the first diving gold for an American man since the late Mark Lenzi won on springboard in Barcelona — two decades ago.

"This is so surreal right now," Boudia said. "I'm in disbelief."

So was Qiu, who pulled off a final dive that was nearly as brilliant as Boudia's, but only good enough for silver. The defending world champion and overwhelming Olympic favourite turned his back to the scoreboard when he saw the final standings, hiding his face — and clear disappointment — against the wall behind the tower.

"I am still young," the 19-year-old silver medallist said. "I will be back in four years time."

Qiu dismissed any suggestion that the Chinese are slipping.

"The result today will not affect our plan for the future," he said through an interpreter. "I believe the Chinese diving team is the best. Nothing could challenge me, nothing could challenge the Chinese team. We are the strongest diving team."

Louganis, who was estranged from USA Diving for years, has come back on board as an athlete mentor, passing along the wisdom and experience of a four-time gold medallist , not to mention being a very visible reminder of an era when the U.S. — not China — dominated the sport.

"We're headed in the right direction," Louganis said. "We still have a long way to go."

China won a total of 10 medals, more than twice as many as the U.S., the next country on the list with four. But the Americans were giddy about their performance after being shut out in both Athens and Beijing. Their new high-performance director, Steve Foley, put an increased focus on the synchronized events, a strategy that paid off with a silver and two bronzes.

Then came a capper that no one could've expected, especially when Boudia barely squeaked through the preliminaries in 18th place.

He was at his best when it really counted, hardly looking like a guy who was once "completely petrified" to dive off the big tower.

"After Beijing, I finally told myself, 'All right, this isn't so hard,'" Boudia said. "It's only three stories up. Having more practice and more training on the 10-meter, and just having that peace, it doesn't faze me now. It's cool."

He sure looked cool in the final round.

The crowd favourite, Tom Daley of Britain, led Boudia and Qiu by a scant 0.15 points going to the final round. But Daley knew it would be hard to hold them both off, since the degree of difficulty on his last dive wasn't as high as the others.

"I was just diving for a medal," he said.

Daley had the place rocking' when he received a perfect 10 from one judge, and 9.0 to 9.5 from the others. But, as it turned out, he was right about the outcome. Boudia's marks were nearly as good on his back 2 1/2 somersault with 2 1/2 twists in a pike position, leaving him with 102.60 points for the round and 568.65 overall.

Assured of at least a silver, the American had to sweat it out with Qiu going last. The final dive of the competition was stunning as well, but a slight splash on the entry left Qiu with 100.80 points for his dive — and 566.85 total.

Mobbed by his teammates and coaches, Boudia kept mouthing the word, "Wow." As he stepped up on the podium to receive his gold, he wiped his brow and said, "Whew."

Yes, it was that close.

Boudia didn't know how close until he saw the final scores.

Good thing.

"If I had known the margin, my heart would've been pounding and the pressure would've been building," he said. "I just went up there for the last dive like I did for the first five."

Daley settled for bronze with 556.95, but he felt like a winner. His teammates threw him into the pool and jumped right in with him, splashing the first British diver to win an individual medal since 1960.

"It was an incredible competition. I'm just so happy to come out the other side with a bronze medal," Daley said. "I can't wait for Rio to try to change the colour of the medal."

He smiled as he thought of his father, who died last year at age 40 after a battle with brain cancer.

"It's really tough not having him here," Daley said. "I know if he was here, he would be very proud."

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Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963

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