LOS BANOS, Philippines (Reuters) - When she was growing up in the southern Philippines, Sheila Mae Perez’s favorite game was to clamber up on to ships in the harbor of her home town and dive into the water.
“That was my playground,” Perez says of the Sasa Wharf in Davao City. Nowadays the petite 22-year-old is considered one of the best divers in southeast Asia and life is much less carefree as she prepares for the Beijing Olympics in August.
At the Trace College sports camp in Laguna province, south of Manila, Perez repeatedly jumps from a three-meter springboard, twisting and somersaulting before plunging into a deep pool.
Emerging from the water, she climbs up to the springboard and dives again. She carries on practicing until her Chinese coach, who trains her mostly through sign language, gives her a thumbs-up sign and an approving nod.
Perez was discovered in 1997 by local sports officials who had watched the children diving into the sea and spotted her talent. She is at the pool for 3-1/2 hours each day and also works out in a gym, practicing somersaults and tumbling.
“I just want to have fun in Beijing,” Perez told Reuters, drying herself before climbing up to the diving platform again.
“It’s a very tough field but it’s still anybody’s game. What if they all make a mistake and I am the only one who doesn‘t?”
After she was discovered, Perez trained in Manila for three years. She qualified for the 2000 Olympics Games in Sydney, finishing 32nd in the field of 56.
She also qualified for the 2004 Athens Olympics but was unable to compete.
She became a local heroine after taking three gold medals in the 2005 South East Asian Games in Manila when she won the 3-metre springboard, synchronized 3-metre springboard and 1-metre springboard.
“Today, Sheila is the best female diver in southeast Asia,” her coach Zhang De Hu said.
Zhang, who was a top diver himself in Shanghai in the 1960s, was hired in 1997 to help raise the Philippines’ standard in the pool. Aquatics is one of three disciplines to produce an Olympic medal for the Philippines although it has yielded nothing since 1932, when the country won bronze in the men’s 200 meters breaststroke.
The Philippines have also won medals in boxing and athletics, the last a boxing silver in 1996.
“My goal is for our athletes to enter the finals at the Olympics,” Zhang told Reuters, speaking in Mandarin.
“That is my hope. It is a very daring plan as the Philippines is a small country. And it was not very long ago that it started diving sports.”
In addition to Perez, Zhang is coaching another Olympic hopeful, Ryan Fabriga.
Zhang speaks little English and no Filipino, so most of his instruction is through sign and body language.
If he is satisfied with how the diver executes the routine, he smiles, gives a thumbs-up sign and nods his head. When he is not happy, he scratches his head and contorts his body and legs to explain what went wrong.
Although Filipino divers have made significant gains to reach the top in southeast Asia, Zhang said they remained far behind divers from China, Russia, Germany and the United States.
There was little financial backing for the sport in the country, he said. “There’s so much talent and potential here but they need to be motivated to do more.”
Perez is undaunted by the high standards elsewhere in the world. “Out there, on the platform, we’re all equal,” she said.
“We just have to believe in ourselves, keep our fighting spirit and pray for God’s help. If you ask others, it seems impossible to win gold. But my spirit of winning is there.”
Reporting by Manny Mogato; editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Robert Woodward