US, Chinese athletes share friendship

Updated: 2013-05-14 00:20

By ZHANG YUWEI in Fort Lauderdale, Florida (China Daily)

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Swimmers in 40-year reunion after historic three-week visit to China

US, Chinese athletes share friendship

Former swimmer and coach Du Du (left) and Jim Guaghran, a coach during a visit to China in 1973 by US swimmers and divers, meet on Saturday in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. ZHANG YUWEI / CHINA DAILY

In June 1973, a group of 10 swimmers and divers from the United States embarked on what was then described as a "rare and unique" trip to China - an exchange meant to foster, through sports, a budding bilateral relationship just a year after then-president Richard Nixon's historic visit.

Besides being one of the first exchanges between the US and China before they established diplomatic ties in 1979, the trip was significant because the US athletes faced possible sanctions by their sports' governing body, the International Swimming Federation, which at the time didn't recognize the People's Republic of China.

"We thought that trip was bigger than sports, and this decision that would cancel our sports' qualification was OK if they wanted to, because the trip meant more to us than sports," said Micki King, a diver on that trip who had won a gold medal at the 1972 Summer Olympics.

Over the past weekend, King was joined by a few friends from that visit, from China and the US, at a 40-year reunion at the International Swimming Hall of Fame in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Then-premier Zhou Enlai and the then-US secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, had proposed the visit.

Soon after the US swimmers and divers returned from their three-week trip to China, which included stops in Guangzhou, Changsha and Beijing, they received a disqualification warning from FINA, as the Switzerland-based federation is known.

Despite the threat, back-and-forth communication prevented a disqualification, and the US group drew praise from the US State Department for its effort to promote friendship with China through sports.

"As soon as we got home, the US Senate said strongly that it (disqualification by FINA) shouldn't happen, so our government was on our side," said Jim Gaughran, the US swim team's coach on the 1973 trip.

ISHOF President Bruce Wigo said his year-long efforts to gather swimmers and divers from both countries grew out of what was initially a US-only event. "As I learned more about Chinese swimming history and Olympic history, there is a great story to tell about that development."

Wigo also oversaw creation of an exhibit recognizing China's swimming and diving history since ancient times. Included are photos and other mementos from various US-China swimming exchanges and events, including the 1973 visit.

King, the diver, said: "The feeling of 40 years ago that tied us together is very emotional and it's very difficult to put in words. ... We haven't forgotten and they haven't forgotten."

There were emotional moments in Fort Lauderdale, as when Chinese swimmers and divers with their US counterparts of four decades ago showed gifts they had exchanged.

Du Du, 72, a former coach and swimmer, approached Bernie Wrightson, a 1968 Olympic gold medalist in diving, and showed him a stars-and-stripes towel he had given Du during the US team's stay in Beijing.

"I have carefully kept that towel for 40 years - and never used it. It means a special friendship and the fondest experience I shared with the US athletes," Du said. "The reunion made it possible for me to express my gratitude for the friendship we formed a long time ago, one that has had a tremendous impact on me ever since," he added.

The visit involved learning, sharing and diplomacy - with ups and downs - and served to lay a foundation for US-China relations. For the US athletes, it was an opportunity to glimpse a mysterious part of the world in the early 1970s.

"It was unique; it was early enough that few Americans were getting to China, so the moment you crossed the bridge from Hong Kong into Luohu (in Shenzhen), you felt like you were entering another universe practically, it was so different," said Richard Williams, who was director of Chinese affairs at the State Department escorted the group to China.

Group members learned to use chopsticks, appeared in front of thousands of people in each city they visited, and got to see people in everyday life, including an early-morning tai chi session in a Beijing park.

"It didn't feel like three weeks; it was like three years," said Frank Heckl, a swimmer on the visit and now a physician.

Nicholas Platt, a career diplomat who served in the liaison office of the US government in Beijing at the time, had been given the task of accompanying the athletes.

"It was a genuine move by them. Governments set the tone and the framework, but basically it's private people making private decisions to do things together - that makes a relationship go," said Platt, who took part in the reunion activities in Florida.