Steadier Clark back on board Diving: Barcelona medal winner recovers from a diver's worst fear vertigo to take a shot at the '96 Games.

Olympic spotlight

June 18, 1996|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

She has had her 15 minutes of fame on "Oprah" and had her picture taken as part of a somewhat controversial photo layout of Olympic athletes in this week's issue of Life magazine. She also has had months of anguish, wondering whether she ever would come back to a sport that had defined most of her life.

Now Mary Ellen Clark is ready to take another step back to the future, back to a time when she was considered America's best female diver.

It will start this week in Indianapolis, when Clark attempts to qualify for her second U.S. Olympic team. Though the Olympic trials will have some tension to them, they certainly won't be of the degree Clark endured in trying to overcoming a diver's worst fear: vertigo.

Clark, 33, has suffered from bouts of positional vertigo three times. The first was in 1988, but it came after she had competed in both the Olympic trials and nationals. There was another in 1990, though it lasted only a couple of weeks.

It was the most recent bout, beginning early last year, that nearly forced Clark to abandon a career that had brought her an Olympic bronze medal in platform diving at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona.

"The nine months I was away I look at as a blessing in disguise," Clark said during a national teleconference last week. "It gave my body a rest. It gave my mind a rest. I looked into some career possibilities after diving. I did some motivational speaking. I touched a lot of people. It was not always me reaching out to them, but them reaching out to me."

Clark went in several directions before the vertigo was controlled. She started out taking a traditional approach, going to an ear, nose and throat specialist, who said she had an ear infection. She went to a neurologist, who gave her exercises to do with her head. She tried acupuncture. She had brain scans and EKGs. She took medication that made her even more dizzy and homeopathic remedies that had no effect at all.

"You name it, I tried it," said Clark.

But it wasn't until she went to the Upledger Institute of CranioSacral Therapy in West Palm Beach, Fla., that Clark began to make progress. It was under the care of the institute's founder, Dr. John Upledger, that Clark began to see her way through what had been a slow, tedious and often depressing process.

In an interview with Sports Illustrated last summer, Clark said: "I'm a realist. I have some perspective. There are a lot of people looking for solutions to problems worse than mine. I'm not walking off-balance. I'm fine. I see this as a test. Attention: This is a test. I don't know what it means, but I'm going to find out."

With the help of a treatment technique that involves massaging and adjusting the right side of Clark's neck, the vertigo began to clear up. She began competing again earlier this year and the results have been encouraging.

In March, she won the 3-meter springboard event and finished third in platform at the HTH meet in Rockville. At this year's nationals in Oxford, Ohio, she finished third in springboard. At a high-level international meet last month at her home pool in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., she finished fourth in the 3-meter springboard. Her only disappointment has been an eighth in platform at the nationals.

"You're going to have your ups and downs," she said. "It's nothing new. I had them before [the vertigo]."

With the help of the legendary Ron O'Brien, the coach who helped guide Greg Louganis to back-to-back sweeps of the platform and springboard events in Los Angeles and Barcelona, Clark believes she is ready.

If there is anything clouding Clark's thoughts these days, it's the health of her father, who is undergoing chemotherapy after being diagnosed with bladder cancer. Gene Clark was a college diver at the University of Pennsylvania and all seven of his children followed in the sport in Newtown Square, Pa.

Mary Ellen was the youngest, and most successful, of the bunch, winning a 1-meter national junior championship in 1978 before going off to Penn State.

But while Gene Clark has seen his youngest child's many triumphs, he missed the Barcelona Olympics after undergoing heart surgery. He'll be in Indianapolis this week and, health permitting, in Atlanta should his daughter get to the Olympics. "I want my dad to be there," Mary Ellen Clark said last week. "He's hanging tough."

The same can be said about Mary Ellen Clark. If anything, the time away from her sport has made her appreciate things a little more. Though her trip to Chicago a couple of weeks ago for an appearance on "Oprah" included missing her flight and just a short time on the set, Clark said, "It was a great experience, a little crazy . . . definitely a whirlwind. But it was a lot of fun."

The pictorial in Life, which includes a silhouetted nude profile of Clark in a tuck position, also included shots of various body parts belonging to sprinters Carl Lewis and Gail Devers.

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