To the home viewing public, divers are like exotic flowers that bloom every four years during the Olympics, then wilt out of sight and out of mind until the next Games. Of course, they don't actually shrivel up, as last week's events indicated. First came a U.S.-U.S.S.R. dual meet at the Cleveland State University Natatorium and two days later the 13-nation Hall of Fame International Diving Meet in Fort Lauderdale. When the water had stilled, the U.S. divers had every reason to believe that 1980 will be another banner year.
The U.S. performance in Cleveland reversed last year's defeat in Leningrad, where the Soviets won easily, 52-36. This time the Americans won 58-30, and they did so by sweeping the first three places in both the men's three-meter springboard and 10-meter platform events. The U.S. team also had 18-year-old Jenni Chandler of Lincoln, Ala., the Montreal Olympic springboard gold medalist, who has the endearing Southern habit of turning a straightforward declarative sentence into a question. For instance, she might say, "I dived off that three-meter springboard until there wasn't a Soviet within 38 points of me?" And that is exactly what she did.
Did the Soviets send their best divers to last week's first big international meets of the year? Well, da and nyet. Platform diver Elena Vaytsekhovskaia was home sick, and Sergei Nemtsanov, their men's tower ace, hasn't been allowed out of the U.S.S.R. since he tried to defect in Montreal two years ago. But then in 1977, the U.S. team went to Leningrad without Chandler and Phil Boggs, also a gold medalist on the springboard in '76, and without the silver medalist in the platform, Greg Louganis. All three-were on hand last week, and they were instrumental in the Soviets' undoing.
Boggs, who is 28 and a second-year law student at the University of Michigan, finished 68.65 points ahead of his nearest Soviet rival in the springboard. He also dived surprisingly well off the platform, finishing second to 22-year-old Kent Vosler of Ohio State. Louganis, the 18-year-old high school prodigy from Mission Viejo, Calif., botched one of his required dives and finished third.
When Louganis won his silver medal at Montreal, he was all but canonized as the heir to three-time gold medalist Klaus Dibiasi of Italy, who was soon to retire. It was curious talk in a way because Louganis had not yet won a major national title, and, indeed, did not do so until three weeks ago when he won both the one-meter springboard and the platform events at the AAU Indoor Nationals.
The thing people don't realize is that one mistake can knock you right out of the competition," Vosler said in Cleveland. "And there are at least 20 guys in the world waiting to take you if you do falter. Greg is a great diver, but it's too easy to say that just because Dibiasi retired, Greg is the new king."
If not the new king, then Louganis must be considered first among princes of the high tower. "Greg is the most elegant diver we have," says Ron O'Brien, the 1976 U.S. Olympic coach. "He's the greatest natural talent I've ever seen."
"Greg has everything," says Dr. Sammy Lee, Louganis' coach and two-time Olympic gold medalist on the tower. "He is so space-oriented he never gets lost in midair, and he feels the dive all the way through. Even if he should miss on his takeoff he can usually correct in midair."
Evidently the only thing that has prevented Louganis from fulfilling his considerable promise is a tendency to lose his concentration at crucial moments. This is a result of an awareness that winning doesn't have to be the only reason for diving. "I guess I don't have too much confidence in myself," Louganis says. "I never expect to win anything. That way, when I don't win, I still feel I haven't really lost anything, and when I do win, it's just a bonus."
When Louganis is concentrating, he is capable of a spellbindingly poetic kind of skywriting, and when he enters the water, he seems to burrow a hole through which he vanishes. This is called a "rip" entry because of the sound it makes, like a shirt being torn. When it is executed to perfection, it creates no splash whatever—just bubbles, as if the water were boiling.
Louganis is not preternaturally graceful; he comes by it honestly. His mother enrolled him in a dance class before he was three years old, and shortly afterward he was performing song-and-dance routines in talent contests with his older sister. Because he had asthma, a doctor recommended he take gymnastics classes when he was eight in order to build up his lung capacity. At nine he began diving. By the time he was 12, his muscles had developed so much faster than his bones had grown that he had to give up gymnastics or risk serious injury. Now he is channeling most of his energies into his diving, though he does occasionally step out on the disco floor for a little Latin Hustle two-step.
On Saturday in Fort Lauderdale the Americans continued their impressive showing. Although Mexico's Carlos Giron won the men's three-meter springboard, the U.S. placed five divers in the top 10. The U.S. also finished 1-2-3 in the women's platform with Deborah Wilson of Columbus, Ohio winning.
Then on Sunday Louganis hustled into first place, defeating runner-up Falk Hoffmann of East Germany in the 10-meter, 532.53 to 520.17. Louganis was at his self-effacing best after the victory. "Everybody is still a little off, including me," he said. "But that will change at the World Games this summer."
Chandler wasn't as fortunate in the women's three-meter, finishing far behind Karin Guthke of East Germany when her hand hit the end of the board on her final dive. At the time she was second, six points behind Guthke.
Chandler, who has only recently begun to shake those post-Olympic blues, admitted earlier in the week that she was "a basket case" on the eve of the Russian meet, her first test against international competition since Montreal. "I was more nervous than I had been at the Olympics," she said. That was little comfort to Cynthia Potter, who had led Jenni on points going into the final dive, but lost when Jenni uncorked a dazzling reverse 2½ somersault. "She didn't look so nervous to me," said Potter.
The reason for Chandler's unease was that at the old age of 18, she felt worn out from her Olympic effort. "When you work for a year toward one thing and then it's over, it's just the pits," she says. "I was so burned out I didn't want to dive again, and I thought a lot about retiring. The longest I had gone without diving since I was nine years old was only a month, so after 10 months out of the pool my body was in shock. Now that I'm enjoying myself again, I'm trying to clean up my act."
Post-Olympic decompression is not all that uncommon, and Jenni wasn't suffering alone in 1977. "The Olympics are the highest any amateur athlete can go," agrees Louganis, "and when you get back home it's hard to adjust. When I came back from Montreal, a lot of my friends at high school wouldn't talk to me because they thought I had changed. It was very hard on me at the time."
To make matters worse, Louganis got mononucleosis, bruised both his heels and injured his back so severely that he had to take muscle-relaxing drugs. "Those muscle relaxers depressed him," says Sammy Lee. "He was talking about retiring and all kinds of crazy stuff. But he's all right now."
So are Vosler, Chandler, Wilson, Boggs and several other American divers, who will endure two more years of obscurity until Moscow and their two weeks before the TV cameras.