Breaking all the records
The winner of seven Olympic medals (five of them gold) and 14 World Championship medals (eight of them gold), China’s Wu Minxia is the most decorated female athlete in the history of diving. As well as collecting four consecutive Olympic 3m synchronised springboard titles between Athens 2004 and Rio 2016 with three different partners, she also won the 3m individual springboard gold at London 2012.
The quest for individual gold
Wu Minxia’s long and hugely successful Olympic career began at Athens 2004. Partnering Guo Jingjing, she won gold in the 3m women’s synchronised springboard event, a title the duo retained at Beijing 2008, where Guo added another individual 3m springboard title to go with the one she had pocketed in the Greek capital four years earlier.
Spotted at a very early age but hampered on her rise to the top by a string of injuries, Wu grew accustomed to being in Guo’s shadow. However, she never gave up hope of fulfilling the dream she had pursued since her childhood, when she would watch on TV as China’s divers soared to success on the Olympic stage, resolving to follow the trail they blazed.
After taking individual 3m springboard silver behind Guo in Athens and collecting the bronze in Beijing, when Russia’s Yuliya Pakhalina split the Chinese duo, the ambitious Wu was determined to kick on and finally make that dream a reality.
A long-awaited world title
The turning point in her career came in 2011, a year that began with Guo announcing her retirement after amassing six Olympic medals, four of them gold, a record unrivalled at the time. Together Guo and Wu had also won four 3m synchronised springboard world titles (in 2001, 2003, 2007 and 2009), and Wu would win another in Shanghai in 2011 with new partner He Zi. As a sign of things to come, Wu also claimed her one and only world 3m individual title that year, finishing ahead of He in a Chinese one-two.
Coronation in London
There would be identical outcomes at London 2012, where Wu and He eased to synchronised springboard gold, top-scoring with each of their five dives to rack up a total of 346.20 points and win by a distance from USA’s Kelci Bryant and Abigail Johnston, and the Canadian duo of Jennifer Abel and Emilie Heymans. It was Wu’s third consecutive Olympic gold in the event. Held over three days, Wu dominating proceedings in the preliminary round of the individual 3m springboard competition The 26-year-old was out in front again in the following day’s semi-finals, and then closed out the competition a day later with five precise dives to win what would be her first and last individual Olympic gold.
The only competitor to score in excess of 85 marks – for her third and fifth dives – and to exceed 400 points in total, Wu was a comfortable winner ahead of team-mate He and Mexico’s Laura Sanchez. “I think we all have a dream, and I chose diving, with my aim being to make a difference,” she said at the time. “I never gave up on that dream, though I haven’t achieved this on my own. So many people have supported me, from my family and my coach, to a whole lot of other people behind the scenes.”
In winning her sixth Olympic medal, Wu joined the great Guo at the pinnacle of women’s diving, while FINA named her Athlete of the Year in the female diving category in both 2011 and 2012.
A new partner, more success
Wu then joined forces with Shi Tingmao in the 3m synchro event, with the pair taking the world title in Barcelona (ESP) in 2013 and retaining it in Kazan (RUS) two years later. In the process, Wu became the first diver in history to win seven world golds in the event, with three different partners. “I’m getting older and it takes longer for me to recover now,” she said after her Kazan triumph. “I need to be efficient when I train and try to avoid picking up injuries. The synchronised was my only event here, and it’s always difficult to win the gold.”
A matchless record
Wu came close to missing out on Rio 2016 after suffering a leg injury two months before the Games. She made the trip but sat out the individual competition, looking on as her current synchro partner Shi won by a distance from her former partner He. One week later, Wu was back in action alongside Shi to win her fourth consecutive synchronised gold from Italy’s Tania Gagnotto and Francesca Dallapé and Australia’s Maddison Keeney and Anabelle Smith.
In climbing to the top of another Olympic podium, Wu joined her compatriot Chen Ruolin – who won a third consecutive 10m synchro title in Rio – on five diving golds, one more than American great Greg Louganis and her “big sister” Guo. Wu holds the distinctions, however, of being the most decorated Olympic diver in history with seven medals and the oldest woman to win Olympic gold in the sport.
On 22 December 2016, Wu announced her retirement from competitive diving at the age of 31. “Reluctantly, it’s time to call it a day,” she said live on Chinese TV. “The story of Chinese diving didn’t start with me and it won’t end with me. I am really sorry, but my physical condition does not allow me to continue training. I’ve always feared this day coming.”
Though maybe not the first or the last great Chinese diver to grace the boards, Wu will no doubt remain the most successful for many years to come.