How Lenzi pulled out of a nose-dive

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The Independent Online
If you think getting an Olympic gold medal is a first-class ride to riches, then Mark Lenzi would put you right. For the American diver it led to the passage in his life he winces about. He wore fame about as well as an ill-fitting pair of trunks.

The twisting, swooping successor to Greg Louganis, the boy blessed with the marketing tool of being born on the fourth of July thought a Barcelona gold would make him comfortable for the rest of his life. Instead, it almost broke him.

"I fell into a trap," he said, "of expecting the money to flow in. I did the TV shows, I was recognised on the street. I'd made it." But making it pay was another matter. Lenzi's endorsements dried up almost as fast as his towel and, having given up diving, he went into a different spiral.

At one point he was so broke he almost sold his gold medal. "I was down for a long, long time," he said. "I was a mess, out of control. Then one day I took a look in the mirror and thought, 'You have to stop this. It can't go on'."

Thirty-five pounds overweight and with his contact with water restricted to a shower in the morning, Lenzi returned to diving after a three-year absence. "Just to see if I could still do it."

He could. In the American trials he went from fourth to a spot in the US team with a dive brushing so close to perfection he registered maximum 10s with some judges. "The hard part was over," he said. "The Games would be easy in comparison."

In fact, in the early hours of yesterday morning, it was very difficult. Lenzi was good, you do not win medals with belly flops, but in the final of the three-metre springboard he was facing men who had trained throughout the four years. They were not just picking up the sport again after it had been thrown into the dustbin, they had nurtured their bodies, refined their twists, overtaken the man who had been their master in Barcelona.

Men like China's Xiong Ni. Whereas other divers had a bodybuilder's muscular torso, he is thin and wiry. Massive power in his shoulder and arms, certainly, but he looks like a novice in the gym, not the person pulling weights like they were toys.

When Xiong jumps the spring in the board looks twice as vehement as when his rivals try to get impetus. Up and up, it must be the closest thing to flying. The skill is in harnessing that power, using the thrust to spin the body into an edifying shape. It is something not easily learnt and why divers graduate to the three-metre board only after they have learned the basics on the high board.

To the inexperienced onlooker a dive can be judged by the entry. A slap against the surface, a displacement causing a splash and it is a fair bet that something has gone wrong. Xiong entered the water like a cat burglar. Quick. Unobtrusive. Whereas others were lapping into the 7.0s with their marks, he left a permanent water mark in the 8.0s and Lenzi, nor anyone else, could not catch him. Instead the American was in fourth place going into the same, final dive that had earned him a place at the Olympics.

A deep breath, a deceptively confident stride to the end of the board and Lenzi contorted his frame through its most difficult manoeuvre, a reverse three and a half somersault. With barely a splash he hit the water and left it to a flash of 8.5s and nines on the scoreboard. The bronze was his.

"I'm happy with a medal," he said. "It doesn't matter what colour it is. With everything I've been through this is special. I'm retired for good now."

Xiong, meanwhile, was crying, cradling his gold. As Lenzi could tell him, the challenge for him could lie in the future.

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