Cougars Dive for Gold at Summer Olympics

August 4, 2008

In August, senior Pozdniakova and alumna and Olympic gold medalist Pakhalina will compete against the world’s best athletes as members of the Russia diving team. Longtime UH head diving coach Jane Figueiredo will guide the duo as an assistant coach, a position she has held previously — twice for Russia and once for Great Britain.

“Anastasia and Yulia will represent the University of Houston well,” said Figueiredo, a 1987 UH graduate. “They love this place.”

It’s their love for diving, however, and their athletic prowess that may propel them to Olympic gold in two events. Pozdniakova and Pakhalina will vie individually in the three-meter springboard diving category. The pair also will team up for the three-meter springboard synchronized event.

“It’s exciting,” Pozdniakova said. “I’m not sure what to expect, but I’ll do my best and see what happens.”

Pozdniakova has spent years preparing for her first Olympic appearance. At 7 years old, she took her first diving lesson in her hometown of Elektrostal, Russia. Since then, she has dreamed of becoming an Olympian and has taken steps to realize that goal, enrolling at UH in 2004, then joining the university’s diving team and practicing six hours a day, six days a week.

Her hard work and tenacity have earned her numerous collegiate honors, including being named the 2007 Conference USA three-meter diving champion and C-USA one-meter diving champion. Now with her first appearance at the Olympics, the 22-year-old is poised to capture the biggest prize in her career.

Expectations are high for Pakhalina, who believes she has a good chance of winning a second gold medal in her third Olympic games.

At the 2000 games, Pakhalina and her then-partner, Vera Ilyina, won the first Olympic gold medal awarded in synchronized diving. In 2004, she and Ilyina, who worked as a UH volunteer diving coach, received a silver medal behind the Chinese duo Guo Jingjing and Wu Minxia in the synchronized event.

In that same year, Pakhalina also took a bronze medal in the individual three-meter event, and Jingjing and Minxia, placed first and second, respectively. This year, Pakhalina will again oppose Jingjing and Minxia.

“I believe Yulia is the one woman in the world who can win it all, who can take the gold from the Chinese,” Figueiredo said. “We can’t say that about too many of the world’s divers, but she can do it. I’m anticipating she will do very well. In the synchronized event, we expect to be a medalist. Our goal is, of course, to win the gold, but anything less than a silver medal will be disappointing.”

Pozdniakova and Pakhalina, who graduated from UH in 2005, may not be the only Cougars emerging victorious at the games, which run Aug. 8-24.

Former student Tania Cagnotto will compete in the individual three-meter and 10-meter platform diving events. Cagnotto, who attended UH from 2005 until fall 2007, returned to her native Italy to fulfill military commitments, Figueiredo said.

With their debut at the Beijing games, Cagnotto and Pozdniakova will join more than 50 athletes, including Figueiredo and track legend Carl Lewis, who have journeyed from UH to the Olympics since 1956.

Francine Parker