INDIANAPOLIS -- The quiet pain of Kent Ferguson stretched out over eight long years. The joy that erases all of that played out last night over split seconds in the air, splashless plunges, numbers on a scoreboard, ovations and tears.
Ferguson, 29, of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., made the two-man U.S. Olympic springboard team at the Olympic trials to wash away narrow misses in 1984 and 1988.
He always said the past disappointments weren't so bad. He always foisted a life-goes-on attitude, nearly with nonchalance. Last night, though, his words and his ethereal smile suggested otherwise.
"I would rather have been last than third again," he said, blue eyes sparkling. "If I went into the last dive and there was no way, I'd have done a cannonball! I am overwhelmed, My mind is buzzing. This is different. A lot. I can finally say that!"
Current U.S. three-meter champion Mark Lenzi, who trains in Ann Arbor, Mich., won the trials with 1,396.38 total points to Ferguson's 1,376.46. This year's version of Ferguson, in not-good-enough third place with 1,338.09, is Mark Bradshaw of Columbus, Ohio -- the same man who microscopically edged Ferguson to make the 1988 Olympic squad.
Third in both previous trials, Ferguson was the dreaded third after Thursday's preliminary round, facing the nightmare of a repeat.
"Everybody in this place tonight thought he was going to be third again," shouted his coach, Ron O'Brien, over the Natatorium din. "I told him, 'Prove them wrong.' He responds to that."
"I thought he did that on purpose," Ferguson, laughing. "He knows to kick my rear end; he's got to tell me I can't do it."
Showing a confident aggression he lacked in the prelims, Ferguson whittled Bradshaw's lead from 16 points to one after yesterday's five required dives. He roared ahead on the first of six optional dives, a back 2 1/2 somersault pike, and kept ripping cleanly, building his new lead, as Bradshaw struggled.
In the women's competition Mary Ellen Clark, 29, stood in second place between two other relative old-timers, and positioned to grab an Olympic berth today.
To choose the two divers who will represent the United States in Barcelona, Spain, the results from Friday's round of eight dives will be added to the scores from today's 2:30 p.m. finals. The competitors may change their list of dives, but they usually duplicate the preliminary round.
Clark, a workaholic athlete known as "Marathon," trails first-round leader Ellen Owen, 29, by five points and has a 23-point advantage over her closest challenger, Jill McCambridge, 33, from Columbus. The three are the oldest women at the trials.