The 14-Year-Old Diving Prodigy Who Won Gold — and China’s Hearts
15 Aug, 2021  |  Source:Sixth Tone  |  Hits:1558

No athlete among the winners of China’s 88 Olympic medals has struck a chord in the country quite like 14-year-old diving champion Quan Hongchan.

Since her debut on Aug. 5 in Tokyo, where she dominated the 10-meter diving event, the short-haired teenager has become the subject of nationwide adoration for her underprivileged upbringing and down-to-earth demeanor.

On social media, Quan has been dubbed the nation’s “little sister.” And after her hometown of Maihe in the southern Guangdong province suddenly received streams of tourists, local authorities decided to shut the village to outsiders, citing COVID-19 concerns.

The daughter of an orange farmer, she has four siblings and a mother who has been in poor health for years due to a car accident. Many people sympathized with Quan after she said in an interview following her golden victory that one of her motivations to train hard was that, “(My) mom is sick, but I don’t know how to read the character (of the disease) … so I just want to make a lot of money to pay for medical bills ... and cure her.”

“Who would not feel heartbroken after watching this video? My heart is torn apart! She is just a kid,” a user on microblogging site Weibo wrote in an upvoted comment.

Despite her feelings of responsibility toward her family and her world-beating sporting prowess, Quan has in endearing ways shown herself to be like any ordinary 14-year-old, with charming slip-ups during interviews, an unabashed dislike of school, and a love for playing video games and eating latiao, a cheap, spicy Chinese snack.

Quan Hongchan is lifted aloft by a coach after seeing the score and winning the women's 10m platform diving final event during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre in Tokyo, Japan, Aug. 5, 2021. Oli Scarff/AFP/People Visual

Quan’s genuine interview responses contrast with the diplomatic answers that Chinese athletes usually give. Many of her quotes have trended across the country’s various social media platforms, including a quip that she had never been to an amusement park and would like to visit one.

Her story has also brought much attention to her family’s financial situation, with many local businesses wishing to donate money and even real estate. Quan’s father, however, said in an interview that he had rejected all offers because he “didn’t want to consume my daughter’s fame.”

Until officials closed off their village on Sunday, the Quan family home drew thousands of daily visitors, including all-day livestreamers hoping to cash in on the young Olympian’s story. The family said its elderly members couldn’t sleep for days due to the noise.

With the Olympics concluded and Quan back in China, her story continues to be a topic of discussion on social media. “All her answers in the interviews are so natural, honest, and direct,” a Weibo user wrote Thursday. “It’s such a rare quality — a quality that most of us lose along the way. It’s especially precious.”