Lenzi puts a new spin on top of U.S. diving game PTC American offers acrobatics, not grace

July 24, 1992|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Staff Writer

BARCELONA, Spain -- He used to make weight. Now, he makes splashes.

Mark Lenzi is a wrestler-turned-diver. He is the best 3-meter springboard performer in America. Maybe the best in the world.

He brings an attitude and a spin to his sport. As the heir to Greg Louganis' Olympic throne, he has come to Barcelona talking of winning a gold and starting a dynasty.

"It may be the post-Louganis era," he said. "But it's the pre-Lenzi era."

At 24, with just six years of experience, Lenzi has transformed himself from a stocky, muscular mat rat into a diving cannonball. He is 5 feet 5, 148 pounds, a truck driver in a Speedo. But watch him flip and spin in the air, and you see an athlete pushing an envelope, hitting speeds and maneuvers never seen in his sport.

"I come from a very competitive background," he said. "You try to psyche your opponent out. Well, I try to psyche up mentally."

Lenzi is different. Very different. Diving is a sport of aerial artists, not tough tumblers. But it was Louganis, the greatest stylist the sport had ever known, who influenced Lenzi the most.

In 1984, Lenzi was a high school wrestler savoring triumphs in district championships, spending the summer as a lifeguard at the Pleasant Valley Swim Club in Fredericksburg, Va. He was watching the Los Angeles Olympics. Louganis was winning golds.

"Greg's performance was so outstanding, he made it look easy," Lenzi said. "I had to learn how to dive."

Lenzi found a club, a coach and a sport. He also moved away from home for a month after a bitter argument with his father, who couldn't understand why he was tossing away wrestling for diving. Two years later, Lenzi entered his first open meet, won and earned five scholarship offers on the spot. He chose Indiana, refining his skills under the care of Hobie Billingsley.

The old coach saw a kid who could spin like a top. All Lenzi needed was a little style and a little grace. He won two NCAA springboard titles in 1989 and 1990, won his first international competition at the 1989 FINA World Cup and then completed his remarkable rise with a second-place finish at the 1991 world championships.

"At first, I felt like the new kid on the block," he said. "It was hard. I didn't have a lot of friends."

Lenzi was most definitely not welcome to the world of top-flight American diving. He was upsetting the established order that was ready to take over for Louganis, who retired after winning two golds at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea.

"If you don't get in the right cliques, you tend to be an outcast," he said. "I wasn't accepted at first. If I'm going to win, I have to think about me. But, now, we're all good buddies. But, to tell you the truth, the Russians and I are the best friends. They're the most American guys I know."

Except, of course, next to Lenzi. He listens to John Cougar

Mellencamp, plays video games and acts very much the tough, stoic athlete during a meet.

He simply hates to lose.

"I'm not the glamour boy," he said. "I don't sit around. I don't kiss butt. I let my actions speak for themselves."

At the Olympics, he's aiming for gold in an event won by Americans in every Summer Games they have attended since 1920.

His fiercest competition could come from the Chinese pair of Liangde Tan and Delian Li, returning medalists from the 1988 Games. Also in his way is Kent Ferguson, the American who finally reached the Olympics after eight years of disappointment.

While Ferguson has spent his athletic career in diving, working steadily up the ladder, applying artistry to his tumbles, Lenzi has zoomed to the top by spinning fastest to the water.

"I'm just happy to be here, and I hope to do well," Ferguson said.

Lenzi? Forget that gooey stuff about simply competing.

"I'm here to win the gold," he said. "I'm known for acrobatics, not grace. That's fine for me. I wish I was more graceful. I can spin fast. I do the hard dives. The only one who can compete with the Chinese is me."

But can Lenzi out-duel the memory of Louganis?

"It's kind of hard to replace someone like Greg," he said. "He's the greatest ever. When Wayne Gretzky is done with hockey, who will replace him? I hope people respect us for the talents we have."

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