Nov. 8, 1999
by Abby Wigstrom, Fresno State Media Relations
Communicating with athletes is an essential quality of every coach. Having the gift to describe movements and intricacies of a detailed position is a necessity. For most Division I coaches, instructing athletes using their native language is taken for granted. Chunhua Zhao, the new diving coach for Fresno State?s swimming and diving team, was no exception ? until recently.
Communicating her needs to athletes was never a problem in the past. Then again, Zhao (pronounced "CHOW") was living in her native country of China. Now, she is challenged to translate her instructions into English, a language she has not yet mastered, changing her perspective on verbal communication and bringing a whole new meaning to the game of charades.
Speaking with a rich Chinese accent and using strong facial expressions aided by hand gestures, Zhao explains how she came to Fresno State after a successful 19-year diving coaching career in China and an impressive ten-year diving career of her own.
Two years ago, speaking no English and leaving all her relatives behind in China, Zhao and her husband Weiliu Liu packed their bags, and with their two sons Xun Xuan and Charles by their side, boarded an international flight to the United States.
Starting a new life from scratch in Reno, Nev., Zhao took a job as the assistant coach for the Nevada Wolfpack diving program. Working with what had originally been a club diving sport when she arrived, Zhao helped develop the Nevada program into a nationally recognized and competitive varsity diving team. She also enrolled herself in an English class meeting twice a week. Learning the basics, Zhao was able to communicate her needs to her athletes, but admits her speaking skills were minimal and the English language was more difficult to master than she had anticipated.
"I?ve had a really hard time learning English," Zhao said. "My sons are learning so fast because they are young, but my husband and I are struggling. Before we came to the United States we didn?t even know the ABC?s."
The language barrier has not slowed or impaired her coaching career however. When Zhao was offered the diving head coach position at Fresno State based on her accomplishments at Nevada and her impressive career in China. It turned out to be another challenge Zhao could not pass up. She openly admits the transition from assistant coach has been a difficult one. But she commends head swimming coach Daniella Irle and assistant swimming coach Kristen Jezek for showing her the ropes.
"When I got here I felt like I didn?t know anything," Zhao said. "It?s been a lot of work and has taken time to learn to get established, but Daniella and Kristen are helping me a lot with recruiting and everyday work."
The most difficult task she faces at Fresno State is Lindsay Taunton, the team's lone diver. Although Taunton is developing into a talented first-year diver from Zhao?s guidance, fragmented English and physical demonstrations, Zhao can?t stress enough her need for fluent English comprehension.
"My goal for this diving program is to raise the level of diving and teach Lindsay what perfect diving feels like," Zhao said. "I need to be able to speak good English in order to give the divers instruction and raise their level of competition."
Enrolled in a concentrated one-hour daily class of English through Fresno State, Zhao is continually working to improve her speaking skills and said she is focusing on her grammar and pronunciation. "I think I?m getting better," Zhao said, "but English is a lot different than Chinese."
Speaking English or not, Zhao is proving to Division I athletics that coaching can transcend the language barrier, that actions speak louder than words and that a talented, internationally respected coach is able to reach athletes in more ways than one.
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