Lenzi once wrestled with changing sports, now springs for gold

July 30, 1992|By Gerald Eskenazi | Gerald Eskenazi,New York Times

BARCELONA — BARCELONA, Spain -- Six years after he disappointed his parents by telling them he was giving up wrestling to be a diver like Greg Louganis, Mark Lenzi emulated his idol by winning the Olympic gold medal yesterday in 3-meter springboard diving.

Lenzi got the gold, and proved there is life for American divers after Louganis, by avoiding the mistakes that foiled his chief rivals on the seventh of 11 dives at the Mountjuic pool. And when he could have relaxed and nursed a lead, on the final dive, he cleanly executed his most difficult plunge of the competition.

He finished with 676.53 points,ahead of Tan Liangde of China (645.57) and Dmitri Saoutine of the Unified Team (627.78). Lenzi's teammate and world champion, Kent Ferguson, wound up fifth after a poor final dive.

Albin Killat, a three-time Olympian from Germany, had alternately taken and lost the lead from Lenzi during the first six dives.

On his seventh attempt, Killat leaped off the board for an inward dive with 2 1/2 somersaults. The lean diver suffered the embarrassment experienced by everyone who has ever jumped

into a pool: he did a belly-flop. The British judge gave him a 0.0, dropping him to 12th and last and essentially out of the competition.

Lenzi was next, and he recorded scores of 7.5 and 8.0 (out of 10) with his backward 2 1/2 somersault. Then Tan, who led in the qualifying round on Tuesday, tried a reverse with 2 1/2 somersaults, hitting at an angle and making a big splash. His score plummeted.

From there, Lenzi never faltered in the pool that is set in the mountains that overlook the city. He protected his edge as Tan slowly climbed back among the leaders.

For Tan, it was his third Olympics and third silver medal. He trailed Louganis in the others.

"I think it's very regrettable for me. This is the third time I've competed in the Olympics," Tan said. "I don't think I was up to my usual standard of performance, and Mark did a very, very superb performance."

Lenzi, 24, and his parents were near tears as they embraced. Hi father, Bill, is a physicist in Fredericksburg, Va. His mother, Mary, is a cafeteria worker.

They recalled how Mark had seen Louganis on television winning the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, and how their son had decided two years later to give up wrestling to become a diver.

"We had a falling out," recalled Bill Lenzi, "and he went to live away for a few weeks."

Mark had been promised a college scholarship as a wrestler, an offer his father thought Mark should be compelled to accept.

"I have three other children, and I couldn't have afforded to send him to college without a scholarship," said Bill.

After a two-week stay with a neighbor, Mark returned home but with his determination intact. And somehow, in a city without a pool, Mark improved enough to earn a scholarship to Indiana University.

Reflecting on the hard times his son endured to get here, his father said: "A year and a half ago, he was at a competition and called me. He needed $200. His hotel wouldn't accept his American Express credit card."

To underwrite his son's training expenses, he wrote to "13 millionaires in Virginia." None helped.

L Now, he said, he is "just hoping he gets some endorsements."

Mark didn't seem bothered by the cost of getting to Spain.

"I'm very patriotic," he said. "I was born on the Fourth of July. I felt very emotional up there when they played the national anthem."

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