he never graced the side of a soda can or promoted fast-food as a way of life. But she produces those who do — and who can, much more freely than she ever could at the height of Mao Tse-tung’s rule. As coach and mother hen to some of China’s biggest stars, Zhong Shaozhen has taken a quiet stance on the sidelines, bringing discipline to her divers before stardom goes to their young heads.

In the process, she’s also helped usher in a new Chinese dynasty — this one in the world of competitive diving.

The 58-year-old Chinese Olympic diving coach is the driving force behind the world’s top divers and diving team, which pulled five gold medals in the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games and six golds in the 2004 Athens Olympics.

She is responsible for the success of athletes such as Hu Jia, Li Qiaoxian and China’s popular glamour girl, Guo Jing Jing. Unlike Western athletes, who choose their own coaches, Zhong was assigned by the local sports authorities to raise these youths into the shining stars they are today.

Zhong herself was a national champion in springboard and platform many times over, and won the gold in springboard and platform at the 1974 Asian Games. Zhong began coaching after retiring as a diver in 1978.

Her style is much like that of other Chinese coaches — little cushion, much discipline. Her divers live in dormitories and receive one day off a week. Lights-out is at 10 p.m., and athletes rise at 6 a.m. sharp. Zhong forbids dating among team members, particularly following the rampant rumors that Guo was seeing fellow diver Tian Liang, China’s “diving prince.”

The coach says such drama interferes with her athletes’ concentration, and that the current one-child policy has created a generation of very spoiled children. At the same time, today’s Chinese youths are freer and more knowledgeable, thanks to the Internet.

It’s quite a contrast to Zhong’s traditional tried-and-true methods, but her record shows that contrast works. Indeed, her coaching style has been duplicated around the world.

Those methods and skills will once again be tested in 2008, when Zhong joins a team of five coaches for the Beijing Summer Olympics. As in her day, she hopes to make her country proud of her divers’ skill in the water, not their commercial potential. — Rin-rin Yu