Wendy Lian Williams had every right to be nervous last Saturday afternoon. With one dive left in the women's platform finals of the World Diving Cup, in Indianapolis, Williams, a 21-year-old University of Miami junior, trailed the leader, Chen Xiaodan, of China, by barely five points. "All afternoon," Williams would say later, "I felt like I had an alien in my stomach going boom, boom, boom. I know a little of that is good, but too much is not good."
Williams walked to the edge of the platform and turned her back to the pool. Then she launched herself upward, spun inward 2½ times and punctured the water. A peach basket could have covered the splash without getting wet. In a moment the board flashed 69.72 points, Williams's highest score of the meet.
Next came the waiting, while Chen and her teammate Xu Yanmei, the 1988 Olympic platform champion, who was in third place, 25.77 points behind Chen, made their final dives. "This is familiar," said Scott Reich, Williams's coach. Last summer in Seoul, Williams was in fourth place and Chen in third going into Chen's last dive. But Chen self-destructed, and Williams got the bronze. She had known then where she stood, but she didn't now. Williams saw Chen do an inward 3½ tuck and the seven judges give her scores from 5 to 6½. "That's it," Reich told her. "You've got it."
Williams was ecstatic. "I thought he meant I'd won the silver," she said.
May 14, 1989
But as she studied the scoreboard, it slowly dawned on her that it was mathematically impossible for Xu, who had over-rotated on her third dive, to beat her. "I'm not very good at math," said Williams, "but I didn't think you could get 90 points on a back 2½ pike."
You can't. Xu ripped her final dive for 8½'s and 9's, but in vain. The board showed Williams to be the winner, with 257.91 points to Chen's 251.01 and Xu's 245.07. Even on the victory stand Williams had to steal a glance at the front of her pedestal. Sure enough, it read 1.
"The Chinese are not invincible," said Williams afterward. "I really know that now. I sort of knew it before, but there was always a little doubt in the back of my mind."
The Chinese may not be invincible, but they proved in Indianapolis that they are still the best divers in the world. Not only did they win the men's, women's and combined team competitions—the U.S. was runner-up in all three—but they also won four of the six individual finals. First, Gao Min, 18, the Olympic women's three-meter springboard champion, edged teammate Yu Xiaoling, 277.23 to 275.52, in the women's one meter, a non-Olympic event—despite having had only two practice sessions on the low board in preparation for the meet. Later on Saturday, Tan Liangde, who had placed second to the now retired Greg Louganis in the three-meter springboard at both the Los Angeles and Seoul Olympics, won by finishing 4.53 points ahead of Kent Ferguson of the U.S. When, on Sunday, Gao added the three-meter springboard championship to become the meet's only double winner, and 15-year-old Xiong Ni won the men's platform, it was easy to understand Williams's doubt.
Last week's victory was Williams's first major international win in a long and sometimes rocky career. As a 16-month-old toddler she was trampolining in the backyard under the supervision of her father, Charles, who coached divers in the St. Louis area. She began diving at 3, and at 14 she moved to Mission Viejo, Calif., to work with Ron O'Brien, who also coached Louganis. That experiment had mixed results. Her diving went well—she won the '84 national three-meter springboard title—but she was homesick. "It was really tough being away from my family," she says.
After narrowly missing the 1984 Olympic team in the platform, Williams continued training and enrolled at Miami in the fall of 1985. But the intensity of competition was taking its toll. "I was really burned out," she says. "I started getting lost in the middle of my dives." One symptom of her burnout was fear on the platform. She did not dive at all in the summer of 1986, and when she resumed diving in the fall, it was from the three-meter board only. To bolster her confidence on the platform, Williams sunbathed on it at Miami. A year later, she was ready to try diving from it again.
Her plans include increasing the degree of difficulty (DD) of her dives. Indeed, the hardest dive she performed in Indy—a back 2½ pike—has a lower DD than the easiest one Chen did. That means Williams must count on her opponents' faltering, something over which she has no control.
Williams's only regret last week was that her first international victory was witnessed by only a few hundred people, many of them divers and coaches. "Actually, I am a little bummed by the turnout," she said.
The 19-nation World Cup was the first international championship since Louganis's retirement, which meant that it was the first test in more than a decade of the sport's drawing power without its charismatic leading man. "That guy held us up for 12 years," said Hobie Billingsley, who was Indiana University's diving coach for 30 years before retiring in April.
One person who just might fill Louganis's wet footprints is Billingsley's protègè, Mark Lenzi, 20, an Indiana junior from Fredericksburg, Va. In Sunday's one-meter springboard final, Lenzi grabbed the lead with his first dive, an inward 2½ tuck, which earned him one 7½ and the rest 8's. "Whenever I hit my first dive," he said later, "I tend to have a good list."
Spinning through tight, fast tucks, Lenzi led Valeri Statsenko of the Soviet Union by 34.80 points after four of the six rounds. Even though he tensed slightly on his final two dives, Lenzi easily held off Statsenko, 402.18 to 376.50. "Now that I've done it," said Lenzi, "I don't believe I did it."
Lenzi has been diving competitively for only four years. Before that he was that most miserable of men—a wrestler who loves to eat. He quit wrestling during his senior year at Stafford High and, because the school didn't have a diving team, joined the Northern Virginia Diving Club, driving an hour each way to Fairfax for workouts twice a week. His progress has been nothing short of astonishing. In fact, the World Cup was Lenzi's very first international meet. His biggest previous victory came at the same site four weeks ago, when he won the one meter at the NCAA championships.
At 5'5", 145 pounds, Lenzi may have the right build to revolutionize diving. "Mark's short, strong and quick," says O'Brien. "Some people, like the Chinese, spin well in the pike. Mark spins well in the tuck. He is the first person I've seen who can nail a 4½ tuck from the three-meter springboard."
Lenzi believes he will soon be doing a reverse 2½ with 2½ twists as well. "That one's not even on the books yet," he says with a grin.
As he explores dives that exist only in his imagination, Lenzi will be worth watching. "For 10 years," says Williams, "everyone's been saying, There'll never be another Greg Louganis. Well, there may never be another Louganis, but that doesn't mean there won't be other phenomenal divers."