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'And she chose to keep going'

Freshman diver Shiyun Lai already making waves as a Jayhawk, thanks to her competitive lifestyle back in China

4 min read
KU freshman Shiyun Lai prepares for a dive during the Jayhawks' home meet with Arkansas on Jan. 26, 2024 at Robinson Natatorium. [Chance Parker photo]

Shiyun Lai is still in her first year at Kansas University, but already she’s breaking records and raising the standard of what it means to be a Jayhawk diver. 

A couple of months ago, Lai picked up her second consecutive Big 12 Diver of the Week title, marking the first time in Jayhawk history that a KU swimmer or diver has won this award in back-to-back weeks. 

“Before Lai came to KU, she was already a high-level diver,” KU diving coach Allen Feng told R1S1 Sports. “So it’s not very surprising that she’s picking up these kinds of awards. But given the competition in the Big 12, it’s still a huge accomplishment. I’m really proud of her and I hope she can just keep doing what she’s doing.”

“In China, it feels very competitive. It’s still competitive here too, but you get your teammates’ support. And the training is not as stressful.” — Shiyun Lai

Lai is from Guangdong Province, China. She’s been diving since a young age when she was picked up by a local diving program.

“It’s the typical way in China for sports team coaches to go to elementary schools and pick kids that look talented,” Feng explained. “At some point, you reach an intersection where you give up or keep going. And she chose to keep going.” 

KU already has a couple of Chinese divers on its roster, which has allowed the program to continue its recruiting efforts in China. Coach Feng was a Chinese diver as well, making it easier for him to get in touch with talented divers from the country.  

“It was really hard at the beginning, knowing almost zero English,” Lai told R1S1 Sports with Feng translating for her. “It was also a completely different shift from being only sports-oriented to life here where you have to do athletics and study. The main thing for me is to be positive and embrace any changes.”

In China, athletes usually only need to focus on their sport. As a collegiate athlete, studies and athletics are equally important, which can be a challenging lifestyle to adjust to.

“I think it makes people more well-rounded,” Lai said. “I can have more opportunities to explore different things other than just sports.”

Aside from a shift in priorities, Lai also noticed a difference in the environment in which she trains and competes in the United States. 

“In China, it feels very competitive. It’s still competitive here too, but you get your teammates’ support,” Lai said. “And the training is not as stressful.”

Her upbringing and experience in different training environments has led her to set her sights high for the future, and rightfully so. With a handful of first-place finishes during her freshman season already, Lai is proving to be one of the most talented divers in the Big 12 Conference.

“My goal for the season is to qualify for the NCAA final,” she said. “For the long-run, I want to maintain a good mental and physical status, and be a good diver.”

Lai is no stranger to the championship stage.

In 2018, she competed for China at the World Junior Diving Championships. Not only did her country pick up 14 out of the 17 gold medals up for grabs, Lai was the most successful individual diver. 

She took home first place in three events: B 1-meter springboard, 3-meter springboard, and A&B platform synchronized events. Her winning margin in the 3-meter springboard was huge. Lai finished with 436.8 points, while second place finished more than 50 points behind her.  

“Lai is very quiet and more introverted,” Feng said. “But that’s good, because her personality really makes her focus. Whenever she’s training or in a competition, she’s in the zone. This helps her perform at a much higher level. She’s also very friendly and willing to try new experiences.”

As Lai continues to adjust to life in the U.S. and as a Division I collegiate athlete, her mantra is simple: “Go with the flow,” she said. 

Kansas swimming and diving rounded out its fall season with a dominant, 177-62 win over Rockhurst. Lai took home first place in the 3-meter and 1-meter diving events.  

The Jayhawks will resume their competition on Friday, when they kick off their spring season with the annual Crimson vs. Blue exhibition meet.

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