Clark dives in to give ill dad best therapy

July 29, 1996|By Ken Rosenthal

ATLANTA -- He missed seeing his daughter win a diving bronze medal in Barcelona after undergoing open-heart surgery.

He saw her win a bronze Saturday night three months after undergoing surgery for bladder cancer.

And now a reporter was on the phone, asking Mary Ellen Clark's father about the significance of it all.

Gene Clark thought back to 1992.

"I believed at that time that it was the end of Mary's career," he said.

And then he started to cry.

"I have trouble sometimes," Gene said after a long pause. "I thought I missed it."

He paused again, collecting himself.

"Ask me another question," he said. "Not a tough one."

It was a reasonable enough request, the morning after Mary Ellen Clark rallied to become the oldest American diver to win a medal. Clark, 33, took nine months off in 1995 because of vertigo, a condition that causes dizziness and disorientation when the head moves too far up or down.

Yet there she was Saturday night, recovering from a poor third dive to finish third in the platform competition with her ailing father in the stands.

"It made everything just perfect," said Clark's mother, Carolyn. "The minute she came in, she gave me the flowers they gave her on the stand, then she put the medal around her dad's neck.

"It was just . . . tears. You can't get any better than that."

Carolyn said more than 100 friends and relatives celebrated at an Atlanta restaurant decorated with 300 roses, red, white and blue tablecloths and huge signs.

Naturally, TV cameramen followed. "They seem to be able to find us," Carolyn said, laughing. "I'm personal friends with many of them."

Gene, 67, is the former captain of the University of Pennsylvania diving team. Six of his seven children became divers. Mary Ellen is the youngest.

"I think if his health prevented him from coming this time, it would have broken her heart," Carolyn said.

But this time, Gene made it, thrilling his daughter.

"I know what he's thinking -- I can just look into his eyes," Mary Ellen said after Friday's preliminaries, in which she finished a disappointing 12th, but qualified for the semifinals.

"He doesn't have to say anything. He's so filled with emotion. His heart, he wears it on his sleeve. But he's quiet. He's downplaying his emotions, but he's bursting inside."

Gene said he didn't get any more excited Saturday night than he usually does at diving competitions -- which is to say, he didn't DTC get excited at all.

A former diving judge, he takes almost a clinical approach at meets, evaluating Mary Ellen's performance, predicting her scores.

"Then, when it's all over, I'm kind of content," he said.

Indeed, for all his diving experience, he was never a pushy father.

"My dad's going to love me if I'm in last place or first," Mary Ellen said. "He wants me to go out there and do my best, have a good time, enjoy the moment."

And this was one Mary Ellen could appreciate like none other.

She began diving again last October after recovering from her third and most prolonged battle with vertigo.

But then, her father was diagnosed with cancer.

Gene is undergoing chemotherapy. He received his most recent treatment 10 days ago. He is scheduled to receive another tomorrow.

"I'm at the end of the cycle, so I'm at the top of my form right now," he said. "I'll go through September with this nonsense, then I'll be done."

Being there Saturday night, watching Mary Ellen compete probably for the last time, it brought a certain sense of closure.

Clark is likely to retire after the Olympics -- she's 15 years older than the other U.S. women's platform diver, fourth-place finisher Becky Ruehl.

And now, her father has seen her win a medal.

"It's huge to have him here," she said Friday. "I looked at him today. I was surrounded by all my brothers and sisters. He's always in the background, always biding his time.

"Finally, when I went to hug him . . . he's an emotional person. I tend to get my emotions from him. It was great to give him a hug. I think it's just really special. He was my first coach. It's just nice to see it all come full circle."

They were always close, as fathers and daughters often are. But if anything, it seems they've grown closer in recent months.

"It was a running joke for a while," Mary Ellen said. "I would always say, 'I love you.' He would be like, 'Me, too.'

"After his bladder surgery, I went home after trials [in June]. I said, 'Dad, I love you.' I was like, 'C'mon, c'mon.' He whispered because he was hurting so bad, 'I love you, too.'

"I lost it. I was like, 'Oh, my God.' Now, every time I talk to him, I say, 'I love you.' He says, 'I love you, too.' "

No doubt he was saying it again Saturday night, saying it through all the cheers, all the tears.

Pub Date: 7/29/96

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