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September 28, 2000

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Crunch time for Little Darling-turned- Big Sister

Derek Parr

Fu Mingxia faced a dramatic duel with Chinese team mate Guo Jingjing in her bid for a record-equalling fourth Olympic diving gold medal after the two led the way on Wednesday to the final of the women's three-metre springboard.

Fu led the 12 qualifiers for Thursday evening's final with an aggregate score of 585.57 points from the combination of her five preliminary round and five semifinal dives.

Guo, 18, amassed 583.89 but will take the highest semifinal total to the final when the preliminary round scores are dropped.

Guo scored 251.22 points in the semifinal against Fu's 242.82.

Fu and Guo had to settle for silver behind Russian European champions Vera Ilyina and Yulia Pakhalina in Saturday's inaugural synchronised diving three-metre springboard final but are set to make the final a two-way battle for gold.

Fu won the platform title at the 1991 World Championships as a 12-year-old, becoming the youngest diving world champion in history. A year later she won the same event at the Barcelona Olympics. Fu swept both women's diving titles in Atlanta.

The three-time Olympic gold medalist was plucked from her home in Wuhan in central China as a 9-year-old and taken away to Beijing to train seven days a week. She was only allowed to see her parents twice a year.

When asked in Barcelona what kind of work her parents did, she didn't know. But these days, the woman whose name means "beautiful sunrise" says she's having fun diving and competing for herself.

Guo, coming in to Sydney, was a hot favourite before Fu threw her petite hat in the ring. Asked about her prospects, the 'Little Darling' of Barcelona smiled and said, "Guo is very very good, but she should not forget that her Big Sister is around."

Pakhalina, the individual European three-metre springboard champion, was third overall, more than 30 points behind the Chinese pair, on 552.51 points.

Former European gold medallist Ilyina was fourth on 543.06 and 2000 European silver medallist Doerte Lindner of Germany fifth on 543.03.

When the preliminary round marks are dropped the difference between them and the Chinese pair is less dramatic -- Ilyina will take 237.81 semifinal points through to the final, Pakhalina 236.43 and Lindner 233.82. But the Chinese remain favourites.

Fu, who retired and went to university after winning both the platform and three-metre springboard titles at the 1996 Atlanta Games, returned to international competition at the 1999 World University Games in Palma. She won both the platform and the three-metre springboard titles there.

She did not defend the highboard title she won at the last two Olympics but if she retains her springboard crown she will join Americans Pat McCormick and Greg Louganis as the only divers in history to have four Olympic golds.

Early casualties included Canadian Commonwealth champion Eryn Bulmer, who failed to make the semifinal after two bad dives in the morning session, and multiple European medallist Conny Schmalfuss of Germany. Schmalfuss slipped and landed flat on her back in the water in the second round of the preliminary series, scoring no points.

"I am really disappointed," Bulmer said. "I can't say exactly what went wrong because I felt so good this morning. Maybe too good."

Disaster overcame the experienced Schmalfuss when she slipped on the take-off for her second dive -- a reverse 2- somersaults with pike -- and landed on her back in the water.

Schmalfuss, silver medallist with Lindner in the three-metre springboard synchronised event at the European championships in Helsinki in July, received zero points from all seven judges to drop to 43rd and last in the order.

She dived in the third round but, suffering pain in her left elbow and unable to do the pike for her dive, scored a low total. Her coach pulled her out of the competition since Schmalfuss had no chance of qualifying for the semifinal.

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