Taking the Plunge
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
CHINA’S DIVING QUEEN, FOUR-TIME OLYMPIAN Guo Jingjing, HAS BEEN SAVOURING LIFE OUT OF THE POOL—AND THE LIMELIGHT—SINCE
HER RETIREMENT IN 2011. IN A RARE INTERVIEW, THE MEDIA-SHY NEW MOTHER TELLS Madeleine Ross HOW LIFE HAS CHANGED SINCE SHE BADE
FAREWELL TO THE DIVING BOARD, MET HER PRINCE AND STARTED A FAMILY
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”