Gao learned how to swim at the age of four. At nine, she started gymnastics training, before she was spotted by a diving coach and persuaded to switch to compete in diving. She won her first major international competition - on the 3-meter springboard - in the World Championships in 1986. Nicknamed the "Diving Queen", Gao is one of the most dominant divers in the history of the sport. Undefeated in world competition on the 3-meter springboard between 1986 and 1992 (including Olympic Games gold medals both in 1988 in Seoul and 1992 in Barcelona).She tied the legendary Greg Louganis for receiving the most international awards on one board. She is also the only female diver to surpass the 600-points mark in the event; and she did it three times.
Gao was chosen as the World's Best Diver of the Year by the U.S. magazine Swimming World from 1987 to 1989 and the Woman's World Springboard Diver of the Year for a record seven consecutive years from 1986 to 1992.