Among those at the clinics were Li Kongzheng and Li Hongping, who became Chinese Olympians and now coach diving teams at the University of Michigan and USC, respectively. They were at the reunion, too.
“The Chinese went from not knowing how to do a basic front dive to owning the world,” said King, 1972 Olympic gold medalist.
Ingrid Daland, a U.S. coach, chatted with German divers at the FINA meet where Chinese divers swept six golds on Saturday and told them she was part of the reunion.
“They said, ‘See what you guys did?’ ” Daland joked.
David Han got backstroke tips in 1973 when he was a 24-year-old in Shanghai. Frank Heckl, former world record-holder, showed him Exer-Genie equipment.
“We had never even seen swim goggles,” said Han, whose U.S. contacts enabled him to attend the University of Alabama. He is now aquatics manager for the city of Memphis. “They were so helpful. We knew they were not the monsters portrayed by the Communist Party.”
Han and his teammates swam mostly in rivers during the Cultural Revolution when Mao, an avid swimmer, declared pools to be bourgeois enclaves.
“China had been closed and the Cultural Revolution was a complete shutdown,” said Hilary Tsai, an 18-year-old swimmer in 1973. “We heard no news of the outside world. Libraries were locked. When the U.S. team came, I remember how friendly they were, the bright colors, the American flag. We were excited to swim in the same pool with Americans.”
A system emerges
Heckl and U.S. coaches told the Chinese they needed to double their training volume. Today, a rigorous regimen from a young age is a hallmark of Chinese athletes.
“We talked about diet, physiology, technique,” said Heckl, 62, an orthopedist. “We had a system to make Olympic champions. From that, they created their own very successful system.”
Daland was asked by Chinese women coaches what Americans did during their menstrual cycle. Daland opened her purse and “showed the Chinese their first tampon,” wrote U.S. diplomat Nicholas Platt in his book China Boys. “In Chinese tradition, objects were never placed in the orifices of the body except at death.”
The American delegation was taken to banquets, acrobat shows, a commune, a porcelain factory, the Peasant Institute and a revolutionary opera entitled Battle of the Plains.
“We could have been on the moon, that’s how odd it all was,” King said. “No locks on any doors because we were assured nobody steals in China.”
Madame Mao hosted the group at a basketball game. She wore an elegant dress, patent leather shoes and a Rolex watch.
“We were stunned,” Platt said Friday at the reunion. “Her appearance made front pages. This was not the severe harridan we were used to. There was lots of maneuvering in the leadership. This was an endorsement of rapprochement with the U.S.”
Platt said he couldn’t have asked for better ambassadors. That first exchange in 1973 followed Nixon’s 1972 Beijing visit and American table tennis players’ 1971 visit.
“It was an opportunity for interaction despite a stream of hateful propaganda,” he said. “Those people-to-people contacts led to the biggest bilateral relationship we have in the world today.”
There were ramifications. U.S. athletes and coaches were warned by the Amateur Athletic Union that the tour would violate FINA’s Rule 53 barring competition with non-member China. Mark Spitz, fresh off his 1972 gold rush and busy with endorsement deals, declined to go. Those who chose to go were careful not to race against the Chinese and decided they would retire from sport. They were suspended from the AAU and U.S. Olympic Committee.
But the delegation was praised by Kissinger for its contribution to “Sino-American understanding and world peace.” During the 1980 boycott of the Moscow Olympics, China sided with the United States. They held a training session in Fort Lauderdale and dual meets.
A swimmer from Shanghai approached Heckl on Friday and in pantomime and broken English reminded him of the time they swam together.
“We didn’t just share swimming knowledge 40 years ago,” Heckl said. “We asked each other, ‘What’s your life like, what’s your country like?’ That trip changed me from the inside out.”