Gophers head diving coach Wenbo Chen left his family and southern Chinese town at age 12 to train with the national team in Beijing — 1,000 miles from home.
But to Chen, leaving his family to pursue a career in diving wasn’t a big deal.
“The first couple days [I was] a little homesick, but after that you started a routine and got used to it,” Chen said. “Actually, I really enjoyed my times [in Beijing].”
Chen dove for a decade at China’s national training center and only saw his family once a year for two weeks each time.
But the sacrifice was well worth it.
Chen had various successes as a diver before starting an elite coaching career in China, the U.S. and Canada that led him to the sport’s grandest stage: the Olympics.
Now, Chen has settled at the University of Minnesota and taken on a new challenge — uniting the Gophers swimming and diving teams.
Chen took several turns in the college coaching realm, first by helping a friend coach at Illinois in 1992. Chen also served as the interim head coach at Florida State in 1998 before he was head coach at Purdue from 2001-05.
Chen coached at the U.S. national training center for four years after Purdue, also serving as an assistant coach for the U.S. national team at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. In Beijing, one of his divers, Kelci Bryant, competed in synchronized diving.
But Chen returned to the college coaching scene in 2009 when he signed with Minnesota. He said he kept coming back to collegiate competition because the job was more stable and it reminded him of the Chinese diving system with the support and competitive atmosphere.
“Diving is not a big event in the U.S.,” Chen said. “But college meets, even when you have a dual meet, sometimes are exciting [with] lots of people watching, too.”
Gophers head men’s and women’s swimming and diving coach Kelly Kremer said persuading Chen to coach the Gophers was more like convincing an athlete to commit to the team.
“I felt like we were recruiting more than interviewing,” Kremer said.
For Chen, the interview process was more of a fan experience, Kremer said.
“When he was interviewing at Minnesota, he got an autograph from [men’s basketball coach] Tubby Smith,” Kremer said. “And he was more excited about that, I think, than anything.”
Chen embraced his new school from the start. Kremer said Chen is prouder to be at Minnesota than most Minnesota natives are and thinks all students should wear maroon and gold.
Kremer noticed this quality during one of the team’s first away meets with Chen. The two roomed together, and there was a Gophers basketball game on TV.
“He was so into it — it was like he had been a Gopher fan his whole life,” Kremer said. “He knows every sport … and he’s a fan of every sport.”
Chen’s dedication to Minnesota has brought the swimming and diving teams closer as well, Kremer said. At the Big Ten championships a couple of years ago, Chen was late for judging an exhibition diving event because he was cheering for one of the Gophers’ swimming relays, Kremer said.
“He understands the importance of swimming and diving and how we work together and how we’re one team,” Kremer said. “We have never been a closer swimming and diving team than we have been in his time at Minnesota. And I really credit Wenbo for that.”
Building a team
Chen said it has been difficult to recruit the best divers to Minnesota because most divers are from warm-weather states and don’t want to come so far north.
Chen said few divers in the Midwest are looking seriously for Olympic-caliber coaches.
So instead, Chen has focused on building a team from local, talented divers. All but one of his women’s divers are from Minnesota.
“Even when they’re not good yet — but if they have a talent — I can have a way to bring them to … the best they can be,” Chen said.
Chen had help bringing prestige to the Gophers diving program. His longtime mentee, Bryant, competed at Minnesota for two seasons.
“Kelci Bryant didn’t even visit Minnesota,” Kremer said. “She came here for Wenbo Chen.”
Bryant wasn’t the only diver to follow the well-known coach to the Gophers. Sophomore Jordan Lesser transferred to Minnesota from Alabama in 2012 after Bryant won a silver medal at the London Olympics under Chen.
“He was actually one of the top reasons I wanted to come here,” Lesser said. “Wenbo probably had the most credibility coaching [Olympic athletes].”
Senior Katie Grunawalt said Chen is a familiar face in the diving world.
“All the coaches know who he is. All the divers know who he is,” Grunawalt said. “So it’s kind of exciting to get the opportunity to learn from someone who is that talented.”
Although Chen is a force on the diving scene, junior Maggie Keefer said he isn’t serious all the time.
“He’s actually really funny during practice,” Keefer said. “He’ll make jokes and laugh at you. It keeps the practice really upbeat.
“But then when it comes to meets and stuff, he’s serious and then that lets you know that you need to be serious for the meet.”
Chen enjoys messing around by yelling at his divers while they are spinning through the air, Grunawalt said.
He keeps his divers on their toes during away meets. Chen drives the team van and surprises his athletes whenever he comes up to a stop light or sign.
“He’ll just slam on his breaks as hard as he can and he’ll say, ‘NiÇê Hao!’ which means ‘hello’ in Chinese,” Grunawalt said. “I don’t know why he says it. It just scares us … and it’s really funny, so it kind of lightens the mood.”
Diving from the start
Chen’s home town had weather similar to Florida, so everyone liked water, Chen said.
“I liked water from a really beginning age,” Chen said. “[And] when I was young, I would, like, flip everywhere.”
When the U.S. swimming and diving team toured China in 1972, Chen saw a film about the team near his home town and was inspired to combine his love for water and flipping.
After a year and a half, China’s national team coaches selected him to train in Beijing.
While Chen enjoyed platform diving the most, he won a junior national title on the 3-meter dive in 1976. He was a finalist on the senior national team from 1977-82.
By age 22, Chen had injured his neck and struggled with his sinuses. He retired from diving and became a provincial head coach, opening his own program.
The Chinese coaching system places a lot of emphasis on finding diving talent when athletes are young. Chen focused on finding the right divers, and within two years, one of his athletes was already top three in the nation.
The national team again took notice of Chen — this time as a coach. At 24, Chen was an assistant coach — one of the youngest coaches at the time —on the team where he coached the men’s 3-meter gold medalist at the 1996 and 2000 Olympics.
China has become a diving powerhouse. The country’s first Olympic diving medal came in 1984. Since then, it has accumulated 59 — a tally that ranks second all-time behind the U.S., which has 135.
Chen said he can’t take too much credit for raising China’s credibility, though he did contribute in some ways.
“The major thing I did when I coached China was move the [degree of difficulty] ahead,” Chen said.
In diving, difficulty is an important component of scoring high. China’s national team is known for executing some of the most difficult dives in the world.
Chen was ready for a new challenge in 1992. After helping his friend coach at Illinois, he coached club teams in Canada and the U.S.
Chen said he wasn’t used to the club coaching atmosphere.
“In [the] U.S., you cannot totally control what [divers] will do because especially when you’re club … the parents pay the coaches’ salary,” Chen said. “Some kids are not that talented. But they paid the money — you have to coach them.”
Chen also said that in China, coaches trained only three divers at a time, but in the U.S. he juggled five or more at a time.
Still a competitor
Chen’s two daughters didn’t follow in his diving footsteps, but that left him more time for his latest hobby — racquetball.
Chen started the sport a few years ago after coaching diving for two months in China. He had gained some weight and needed a form of exercise that wasn’t boring to him.
“I like anything that has a challenge, [that] has a win or lose,” Chen said.
One of Chen’s assistant coaches introduced him to racquetball, and now Chen plays two nights a week with the University’s racquetball team and two mornings a week with a friend.
Chen said he hopes to play in tournaments once he isn’t so busy with diving meets.
“I think I’m pretty good for my age,” he said.
Kremer said there is a “legend” around the Big Ten conference involving Chen and racquetball.
At last year’s women’s Big Ten swimming and diving championships, one of the starters was a former professional racquetball player.
“While [the starter] was starting a race, Wenbo’s chatting with him about, ‘Oh, you play racquetball? You play the racquetball?’ And [the starter] was like, ‘Wenbo, I’ve got to start these races now,’” Kremer said. “Everything was out of his mind when racquetball comes into the picture. He’s as competitive at that as he is coaching diving.”
Besides dreams of racquetball glory, Chen has already accomplished almost everything a diving coach could.
But he said he isn’t any less motivated today than when he first started.
“It looks like I don’t have any challenges, doesn’t it?” Chen said. “[But] I still love the sport.”