Chinese diver Chen Aisen is one of the biggest enigmas at the Rio Olympics. Although he might seem like a newcomer to the scene, the 20-year-old 10-meter platform diver from Guangdong has been a staple of synchronized diving since early 2009.
The Chinese national diving team has a history of giving their divers a chance on the individual stage after their synchronized careers take flight in either regional events or FINA's World Series.
Take Lin Yue, Aisen's current partner on the platform who took gold in the 2008 Olympic synchronized event. Yue received a chance on the individual stage four years later in London, albeit to disappointing results. Although synchronized divers have rarely seen the same level of success on the individual stage, Aisen's performance in Rio on Friday in the 10-meter platform might just be the most anticipated.
Aisen rarely saw the podium in individual events in 2009 and '10, lagging behind his peers, such as the explosive Huo Liang (who won the synchronized gold in the 2008 Olympics alongside Lin Yue) and the dynamic Zhou Luxin.
Aisen always was one step behind. In the language of diving, that'd be a decimal place in the degree of difficulty, which can mean the difference between being a good diver and a great diver. Although Aisen never underperformed at a Chinese regional event -- the most competitive region in the world -- he never quite shined, either. He was always somewhere in between, stuck in a limbo of mediocrity.
In a recent video detailing his Olympic journey, Aisen admitted sheepishly that Lin Yue had to compensate with easier dives in order for them to compete together. Aisen cheerfully and modestly admitted that he'd been a bit of a nuisance. But that cheerful smile belied a competitive streak.
Raising the stakes
Aisen broke out on the individual platform in 2014, and then he toppled the greats in 2015, proving that he could stand toe-to-toe with the best divers in the world. He raised the stakes, upping the degree of difficulty at each event, even besting fellow teammate Qiu Bo during the 2016 FINA World Series in three out of four legs.
When Lin Yue received his chance to perform on the individual stage in London, he was plagued with injuries. Anxiety and uncertainty preceded his performance. At one point, he had to take a month of bed rest, which can be disastrous for a diver.
But this year Aisen is healthy and in the prime of his diving career. Based on the most recent results, he might just be the sleeper favorite for the individual 10-meter event.
On the surface, Qiu Bo might still be the king, but don't count out Aisen. Sure, the narrative buzzing around the 10-meter platform involves Qiu's rivalry with American diver David Boudia. But if you blink, you might just miss Aisen taking home the gold.