Did you hear the one about the diver who's afraid of heights?
Mark Ruiz, 21, began his exploits as a little boy in Puerto Rico. He advanced from jumping off a tree into a pond to sneaking into high-rise resort pools. In no time, he was entertaining lifeguards and his mother, Rosa, who moved with him to Orlando, Fla., when he was 12 to broaden his opportunities in the sport.
Two years later, Ruiz won both the 3-meter springboard and 10-meter platform at the 1993 U.S. National Junior Championships. Despite his daredevil antics as a kid and the comparisons to Greg Louganis, Ruiz still isn't entirely keen on climbing nearly 33 feet atop a platform and coming down at 31 mph.
"To this day, I'm afraid of heights," Ruiz said. "Take me higher than 10 meters, and I'm petrified. I think I was 14 the first time I went off the platform, and I was scared to death.
"My coach talked me into it. He said, `You either do it, or you quit,' and I didn't want to quit. The first totally knocked the wind out of me. It was like somebody punched me hard in the stomach.
"When I stop diving for a while, it takes me a while to get back. I get scared."
There being as many theme parks as gas stations in Orlando, Ruiz has had to confront his vertigo.
"My girlfriend looked at a sky-jumping ride in Orlando Oldtown a couple of months ago," Ruiz said. "I said, `If you want to do it, I'll do it.' I thought she'd say no. It feels like you're never going to stop on the climb, and then you go into an actual free fall. I couldn't even look down."
Ruiz hardly sounds like a man who has won 16 national titles, a total surpassed only by Louganis.
He is the heavy favorite to win both the springboard and platform at the U.S. Olympic trials, which run Tuesday through Sunday at the Weyerhaeuser King County Aquatics Center in Federal Way, Wash.
Louganis swept the Olympic diving events in both 1984 and 1988, and became an inspiration for Ruiz. His mother bought him a video about America's greatest male diver and enrolled him in ballet class, because that's what Louganis had done.
"I hated it, but it was good for my diving," Ruiz said. "There were two other boys in the class, about 30 girls. I hated wearing the tights. I took it for two years and stopped when I moved to the United States."
Ruiz quickly mastered English and fit right in at Dr. Phillips High School in Orlando, where he helped out a powerhouse swim team and one of his friends in the Class of '98 was Calvin McCall, the University of Maryland quarterback.
World-class diving is often a hit-or-miss proposition. China's Tian Liang and Russia's Dmitry Sautin are the world's best. Ruiz figures to contend for a medal in Sydney, Australia in September, if he can just avoid looking down.
Ray has chip removed
Gymnast Elise Ray's training is on hold for a couple of weeks. The top American finisher in the women's all-around at the 1999 World Championships and a member of the Class of 2000 from Wilde Lake High underwent minor knee surgery Wednesday.
"There was a bone chip left over from a condition she had three or four years ago," said Kelli Hill, Ray's coach in Gaithersburg. "There were no symptoms of a problem until this past weekend. Her knee just started to lock up on her as she was walking. I don't think that this is that bad. The Olympic trials aren't until August, and Elise is in very good shape."
Hill expected Ray back in the gym yesterday, saying, "She just won't be doing any pounding. She'll be back to full workouts in two or three weeks."
Ray will pass on the monthly national training camp that will be conducted at Bela Karolyi's complex in Huntsville, Texas, this weekend. Hill's Gymnastics will send Erinn Dooley, Lindsay Wing and Dominique Dawes, who at 23 is mounting a comeback and attempting to make her third Olympic team.
Johnson hurts, too
When Dameon Johnson helped the United States set a world record in the 1,600-meter relay at the World Indoor Track and Field Championships in 1999, he gathered a $26,000 bonus and hope that he could make another, more important national team this year.
The Baltimore resident strained his left hamstring at an indoor meet in February, however, and aggravated the injury at the Penn Relays in April. He rested last month, and his training will have to improve before he can take a serious shot at the U.S. Olympic trials July 14-23.
Johnson set an area prep record with a time of 46.2 seconds at the Baltimore City championships in 1996, when he was a senior at Walbrook. He attended Missouri Valley College for a year before turning professional.