Tak­ing the Plunge

Hong Kong Tatler - - Contents - Pho­tog­ra­phy JAS ON CAPO­BIANCO Styling GRACE LAM

Four-time Olympian Guo Jingjing on find­ing new joy since swap­ping the div­ing board for fam­ily life

IN A SPIN Dress by Lan­vin; ear­rings in plat­inum paved with di­a­monds, and ring with a 16.48-carat DIF heart-shaped di­a­mond and paved with bril­liant-cut di­a­monds, both from the Cartier High Jew­ellery col­lec­tion




The inim­itable Guo Jingjing needs lit­tle in­tro­duc­tion. With four Olympic gold medals and nu­mer­ous World Cham­pi­onship ti­tles to her name, this ar­rest­ingly beau­ti­ful div­ing belle has earned a rep­u­ta­tion as a fear­less, fo­cused and re­mark­ably gifted ath­lete, and oc­cu­pies pride of place in the an­nals of the sport’s his­tory as the most dec­o­rated diver of all time. But for some­one who has lived most of her life in the me­dia spot­light—and much of it clad in a swimming cos­tume—the div­ing de­ity is in­cred­i­bly shy. The roar of ador­ing crowds, the scru­tiny of hun­dreds of thou­sands of spec­ta­tors, the tabloid fascination and the shower of en­dorse­ment deals over her two-decade ca­reer have done lit­tle to de­sen­si­tise her to pub­lic ex­po­sure.

Or so it seems when the 33-year-old beauty from north­ern China ar­rives for our cover shoot. Clutch­ing the han­dles of her tote tightly with both hands, Guo sports a ner­vous smile as she fol­lows friend Maya Lin, Cartier’s di­rec­tor of high jew­ellery for North Asia, into the stu­dio. (Later, we seal off sec­tions of the set to give Guo more pri­vacy while she poses for the pho­tog­ra­pher.) As Lin makes the in­tro­duc­tions, the de­mure Guo nods her head in po­lite recog­ni­tion, softly greet­ing the sea of faces in front of her.

We con­duct the in­ter­view while Guo is hav­ing her hair done and her face made up. She’s ex­tremely beau­ti­ful, at once doll-like and un­usual, with be­guil­ing fea­tures and fe­line eyes that spring to life with a dust­ing of make-up. She’s more com­fort­able speak­ing in her mother tongue so we com­mu­ni­cate, through a trans­la­tor, in Pu­tonghua.

Warm, gen­tle and ut­terly de­void of the ego you might ex­pect from an Olympian, Guo ex­udes a vul­ner­a­bil­ity seem­ingly at odds with her ca­reer as a su­per­star diver. This may have some­thing to do with the fact that it was never her am­bi­tion to be a world-fa­mous ath­lete. Her road to suc­cess be­gan with an in­no­cent mis­con­cep­tion rather than a mis­sion to achieve.

Guo was born in the city of Baod­ing in the prov­ince of He­bei, where she en­joyed a “very nor­mal” child­hood. All was up­turned at the im­pres­sion­able age of six when a div­ing scout vis­ited her school. The scout asked the stu­dents if any­one wanted to learn how to dive—and Guo ea­gerly vol­un­teered un­der the mis­ap­pre­hen­sion that div­ing was a sure-fire ticket to some pic­tureper­fect fam­ily hol­i­days by the wa­ter.

“I ac­tu­ally thought he was ask­ing whether any­body was in­ter­ested in swimming lessons, so I raised my hand,” she re­calls. “In the ’80s and ’90s, not a lot of peo­ple knew what div­ing was and I didn’t ac­tu­ally know what it meant. When I heard the word ‘wa­ter’ in the Chi­nese pro­nun­ci­a­tion of ‘div­ing,’ I had an im­age of fam­i­lies swimming hap­pily to­gether dur­ing the sum­mer—and I wanted to have that.” Guo didn’t even hear of the Olympic Games un­til she was in her teens.

“When I re­alised it wasn’t swimming I signed up for, I just went with it be­cause I liked the chal­lenge. It wasn’t a hobby, but I grew to en­joy it and be­come good at it through my train­ing. Even­tu­ally I de­vel­oped the goal of com­pet­ing and win­ning a gold medal. Lit­tle did I know that rais­ing my hand would lead me to where I am now.”

At just nine years old, Guo moved to Beijing to be­gin full-time div­ing train­ing. In spite of her young age, her par­ents re­mained at home in Baod­ing, but Guo is adamant they were com­mit­ted and sup­port­ive. “My par­ents never forced me to do any­thing or had set ex­pec­ta­tions for me. They just let me ex­plore and pur­sue my own in­ter­ests.”

At 14, Guo was se­lected for China’s Olympic team and made her in­ter­na­tional de­but at the 1996 Sum­mer Olympic Games in At­lanta. Train­ing was gru­elling and lasted be­tween eight and 10 hours a day, be­gin­ning with a 6am jog fol­lowed by phys­i­cal-strength train­ing ex­er­cises, gym­nas­tics and ac­tual div­ing. It took a toll on Guo’s health as she sus­tained long-term dam­age to her waist, an­kles and eye­sight—all in­juries common to pro­fes­sional divers. Reti­nal surgery has re­stored her vi­sion for the most part.

But the train­ing cer­tainly paid off. Fol­low­ing on two sil­ver medals at the 2000 Olympics in Syd­ney, Guo won her first two Olympic gold medals in 2004 in Athens—one for the syn­chro­nised spring­board and one for the three-me­tre spring­board. China erupted with pride and praise for its new na­tional hero, and Guo was in­un­dated with spon­sor­ship of­fers and en­dorse­ment deals.

In a na­tion where com­mer­cial spon­sor­ship was in its in­fancy, it wasn’t long be­fore th­ese pro­mo­tional part­ner­ships be­gan caus­ing angst with the au­thor­i­ties. The gov­ern­ment found her dra­matic com­mer­cial suc­cess un­be­com­ing for an ath­lete and Guo was cau­tioned against en­gag­ing in such dis­trac­tions to avoid sus­pen­sion from the na­tional team. It’s not a pe­riod of her life she likes to dis­cuss, and it’s clear the or­deal left the young diver shaken.

“In the be­gin­ning I didn’t quite un­der­stand what was go­ing on be­cause we would just lis­ten to the pro­gramme di­rec­tor and do as we were told,” she says. “Most of the time we didn’t re­ally know what th­ese things en­tailed. Only after a while, I re­alised they were en­dorse­ments and I be­gan to have my own views on them. A lot of th­ese things can in­flu­ence your train­ing and take time away from it. As ath­letes, we need to be in­cred­i­bly fo­cused and we can’t af­ford dis­trac­tions. Most of the time we took part in th­ese things on the week­ends, but it was ex­haust­ing.”

The awards be­gan pil­ing up. In be­tween her Olympic stints, Guo was win­ning dozens of golds at the World Cham­pi­onships, Asian Games and Sum­mer Univer­si­ades. But as the medal­lions hung around her neck mul­ti­plied, the more they be­gan to feel like al­ba­trosses.

“At the be­gin­ning it was very ex­cit­ing. But after a while, as I won more medals, I be­gan to feel like it was a re­spon­si­bil­ity—that I went to com­pete purely for the pur­pose of get­ting medals,” she re­calls. “I be­gan to feel like I’d failed if I didn’t win a medal, and I lost that feel­ing of ex­cite­ment I felt when I first be­gan.”

Pres­sure was build­ing. The 2008 Sum­mer Olympics were to be held on Guo’s home turf. If there was ever a per­fect time to win gold, it was in Beijing. Fo­cus and de­ter­mi­na­tion pre­vailed, and the Chi­nese diver came away with gold in the same two events she had dom­i­nated at the Athens Games in 2004. The ela­tion was over­whelm­ing. It would prove to be her fi­nal Olympics, though, as Guo an­nounced her re­tire­ment three years later.

“At the be­gin­ning it was very ex­cit­ing. But after a while, as I won more medals, I be­gan to feel like it was a re­spon­si­bil­ity—that I went to com­pete purely for the pur­pose of get­ting medals. I be­gan to feel like I’d failed if I didn’t win”

Wait­ing in the wings through all of this was Guo’s fu­ture hus­band. Among her crowds of ad­mir­ers inside and out­side the sta­dium, it was Ken­neth Fok who man­aged to win her at­ten­tion and ul­ti­mately her af­fec­tion. Guo met Ken­neth—the son of Ti­mothy Fok, a mem­ber of the In­ter­na­tional Olympic Com­mit­tee, and grand­son of the late ty­coon Henry Fok—on a visit to Hong Kong after the 2004 Olympics. “I sup­pose it was love at first sight,” she says of their first meet­ing, although she seems more of a cau­tious decision-maker than an im­pul­sive ro­man­tic. The pair started see­ing more of each other and Guo found her­self in­creas­ingly en­am­oured with his sin­cer­ity and in­tegrity. “He’s a very se­ri­ous per­son, very at­ten­tive, and al­ways think­ing of me and my well­be­ing. I re­mem­ber think­ing that was very in­ter­est­ing.”

Fok, the deputy sec­re­tary gen­eral of the Sports Fed­er­a­tion and Olympic Com­mit­tee of Hong Kong, of which his fa­ther is the pres­i­dent, was pre­pared to play the long game to win her over. “We dated for eight years, get­ting to know each other and un­der­stand­ing each other bet­ter be­fore be­com­ing life part­ners,” Guo says. In 2011, Fok whisked her off on a hol­i­day to a re­mote is­land, cooked her a beau­ti­ful din­ner and pro­posed. A year later, the cou­ple wed in a lav­ish HK$15 mil­lion cer­e­mony that cap­tured the at­ten­tion of all of Asia.

Last year, Guo em­barked on a new life chal­lenge—one for which ex­pe­ri­ence is the best train­ing; in Au­gust, she gave birth to a son, Lawrence. Asked if moth­er­hood is prov­ing more chal­leng­ing than div­ing, she re­sponds with a laugh and says, “They’re equally dif­fi­cult. As an ath­lete, you’re only fo­cused on your­self and it’s mainly about phys­i­cal ex­er­tion, whereas as a mother I have to think not only about my­self but also my child. Ev­ery­thing is new to me as a mother. In a way, I also feel like a baby be­cause I’m learn­ing bit by bit. No­body re­ally un­der­stands what be­ing a mother is like un­til they ac­tu­ally be­come one. It changes the way you think about ev­ery­thing.”

Preg­nancy ru­mours have been swirling re­cently, but the cou­ple have de­nied they are ex­pect­ing another mem­ber of the fam­ily. Guo says she hopes to add a daugh­ter to her clan at some stage, but there’s no rush. While Lawrence keeps her hands full, Guo man­ages to support a range of chil­dren’s char­i­ties, in­clud­ing Op­er­a­tion Smile, which pro­vides free surgery to re­pair cleft lips, cleft palates and other fa­cial de­for­mi­ties in chil­dren around the globe. Guo also be­came a Unicef am­bas­sador in Jan­uary this year. “I’ve seen a lot of chil­dren who have no way to live a nor­mal life. It makes me want to cry be­cause it’s like they don’t even have a chance. I hope to en­cour­age more peo­ple to help th­ese chil­dren, as I feel it is our re­spon­si­bil­ity,” she stresses. For our cover shoot, Guo wears a va­ri­ety of sparkly Cartier jew­els, which she ad­mires con­stantly over the course of the day. Jew­ellery is a pas­sion of hers, but it’s not the glitz and glam­our of fin­ery that im­presses her. She’s far more in­trigued by the per­sonal sto­ries be­hind heir­looms and the crafts­man­ship that goes into cre­at­ing a piece of wear­able art. “When I look at jew­ellery, I think about how they made it, the sig­nif­i­cance be­hind it. I think it’s very per­sonal.” Guo adds, “I don’t have a very large col­lec­tion, but there was a di­a­mond ring that my mum gave me for my 18th birth­day that has spe­cial mean­ing to me, as it marked my tran­si­tion into adult­hood. There are also some pieces of an­tique jew­ellery that my hus­band’s fam­ily gave me when I got mar­ried, which of course mean a lot to me.” Nowa­days, Guo avoids the spring­board. “As much as I want to, I just can’t treat div­ing as a pas­time,” she con­fesses.

It’s easy to imag­ine that after so many years of liv­ing and breath­ing pro­fes­sional div­ing, she can’t help but as­so­ciate the sport with its re­lated pres­sures. The qui­eter life is some­thing she much prefers. But div­ing trans­formed Guo’s life—and she has no re­grets.

“Ev­ery­thing I have to­day, I have be­cause I started div­ing. I’ve never thought about what I would do if I could start over. I feel like it was my des­tiny to be­come a diver, so I’ve stayed on this path and slowly worked my way to where I am now. I be­lieve things choose you, and not the other way around.”

“Ev­ery­thing is new to me as a mother ... I also feel like a baby be­cause I am learn­ing bit by bit. No­body re­ally un­der­stands what be­ing a mother is like un­til they ac­tu­ally be­come one. It changes the

way you think about ev­ery­thing”

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from China

© PressReader. All rights reserved.