The dizziness arrived with one simple dive. Mary Ellen Clark
wasn't even working off the 10-meter platform, from which she
had earned her 1992 Olympic bronze medal, twisting and turning,
flipping and falling 33 feet to hit the chlorinated water as a
118-pound, 30-mph bullet. No, she was on the one-meter
springboard, no different from the hey-ma diving board at the
local Holiday Inn. And she was just warming up, for goodness'
One moment she was following her familiar routine, bouncing into
the air, going into a basic 2-1/2 tuck. The next moment she was
hitting the water, maybe a little bit off-kilter, maybe not, but
certainly in a different medical condition. Dizzy.
"January 18," the 32-year-old Clark says, reading from a brown
leather day planner in which she has kept notes on all of this.
"I came out of the water and told my coach I didn't feel right.
I said that I should take a break for a while."
The break has lasted for the better part of six months. One
word, vertigo, underlined twice at the head of the next planner
page, describes the problem. The best female diver in the
country cannot dive because she's dizzy.
August 6, 1995
Her frustrations are written in her own tidy hand. How does she
make the spinning stop? She is fine in everyday life, driving
around Fort Lauderdale, where she lives, in her white Celica
convertible, preaching the merits of Interior Design
Nutritionals and Speedo swimwear. She can run. She can lift
weights. She can do all the average things that average people
do. It is only when she returns to the board or even to the
training harness and does any dive more complicated than a
single somersault that the dizziness returns. She comes out of
the water feeling as if she were leaving Space Mountain.
How does she make the spinning stop? Atlanta 1996 is drawing
closer and closer. The clock is ticking.
"January 24," she reads. "I waited five days and said, 'I've got
to do something.' I went to Dr. Dasher, an ear, nose and throat
physician. He said I had a minor ear infection. He prescribed an
antidizzy drug called meclizine. I was afraid to take it because
I thought it might be a banned substance. I also went to Dr.
Wolf, a neurologist. He prescribed Cawthorne exercises, which
involved moving your head rapidly, bending over, doing a number
of things to bombard the system with stimuli. I did these
She is a compact woman with a blonde business haircut and an
excited way of talking. Tenacity is one of her strengths.
Fearlessness too. Her coach, Ron O'Brien, the coach of Greg
Louganis, says that all topflight divers, those who reach his
program at the International Swimming Hall of Fame pool in Fort
Lauderdale, are people who are not afraid to jump out of planes.
The platform divers are simply the ones who don't need
parachutes. The impact of diving from the tower is so
substantial that most platform divers practice no more than 30
dives in a day and then stay away from the platform for two days
to let their bodies heal. Joints become stiff. Shoulders
separate. This is not a sport for the timid.
"January 30," Clark says. "I had an EKG to rule out head and
brain things. That came back fine. I had hot air blown into my
ears. I became dizzier when the air was blown into my right ear.
That's when I heard the term 'benign paroxysmal positional
vertigo.' I also did this vision thing, following a red dot, to
see which ear was affected. This also indicated the right."
She came to the platform late. That is her story. She always had
been a diver, part of a diving family, the youngest of seven
kids in Newtown Square, Pa. Her father, Gene, an IBM salesman,
had been a college diver. There was a trampoline in the backyard
for practice. Hooked by the TV coverage of American gold
medalist Jenny Chandler in Montreal in 1976, Clark followed the
competitive route through high school and then to Penn State on
a scholarship. Her goal was to qualify for national teams, but
she was always short of that until she found the platform in the
summer of '84, after her junior year in college. Just fooling
around, someone challenged her to try the big dive. She stood at
the top for a half hour before doing a basic 2-1/2. That was the
"February 7, something like that," Clark reads. "There was an
article in The Miami Herald about vertigo. They said there was a
Dizziness and Balance Center at the University of Miami. I said,
'There's a place for people like me?' The article also said the
Mayo Clinic was where the most vertigo research was done. I
called and asked for the name of a person in the Lauderdale area
who had taken the Mayo course. They gave me Dr. Susan Herdman.
She had a serious waiting list, but I started pleading. I said I
had a dilemma, that I was a diver and the Pan Am Games were
coming up and I had to find out if I could go and ... there was
a cancellation. She introduced me to the Canalith Repositioning
Success off the platform kept Clark in diving after college. She
went to Ohio State in 1987 to earn a master's degree in physical
education and continue training. She made the national team. The
first appearance of her dizziness came in '88 when she returned
to Columbus from a Southern Cross event in Australia. She was
doing a normal backward 2-1/2 from the three-meter springboard.
She landed and was dizzy. The dizziness continued, but she also
continued. She doesn't know exactly how. She had always closed
her eyes when she hit the water because she wore contact lenses,
but now she would become so disoriented that sometimes she would
swim toward the bottom of the pool rather than to the top. She
asked her friends to watch her, to pull her out when she went
the wrong way.
"The Canalith Repositioning Procedure involves lying on your
side on a table and turning your head while it hangs over the
end at a 45-degree angle," Clark says. "Then the procedure is
repeated on the other side. For the next 48 hours you wear a
surgical collar so you can't move your head. You have to sleep
sitting up. Then for the next five days you sleep on your
unaffected side. The theory is that there are crystals attached
to the hairlike structures in the inner ear. Something you do,
some movement, can knock the crystals off the hairs. When you
spin and then stop, the crystals keep moving. The hope is to
reattach them. I have done the Canalith Repositioning Procedure
six times now. People see me in the collar and ask if I was in a
In 1988 the dizziness stopped after five months. Simply went
away. Clark moved to Florida to work with O'Brien. He re-worked
her list of eight dives, making her learn four new ones. In '91,
disappointed by a 10th-place finish at the Pan Ams in Havana,
she considered quitting. Was it worth it to work so hard for
another year? "You've been doing this for 22 years," O'Brien
told her. "It's worth it just to see if it was worth it."
As she stood on the platform for her final dive at the 1992
Olympic trials in Indianapolis, she looked at the spot on the
wall where the names of the two qualifiers for Barcelona would
be painted. She was leading for the final spot by only one
point. The final dive meant everything. She envisioned her name
on the wall. She dived. She made the team.
"March," she says. "Now some stories about my problem had been
written. I got a lot of calls. A woman suggested I take ginkgo
biloba, from the oldest tree on the planet. I took it. I went to
see Paula Allia, a therapist. I had neck X-rays taken. They were
negative. I had a hearing test from a Dr. Attarian. A Dr. Hanft
prescribed Hismanal. I took it. It made me more dizzy. It made
me sick. I stopped taking it. I took a test in a rotating chair!
The chair was inside a thing like an igloo. Complete darkness.
The chair started rotating in one direction for a while and then
stopped abruptly. I felt like I still was moving. Then we did
the other direction. Same thing. They said, 'Mary Ellen, we're
going to go a little faster.' That thing flew. I tested fine on
the rotating chair. Normal."
The platform diving in Barcelona began on the first real day of
competition. O'Brien suggested Clark skip the opening ceremonies
the night before because she would have to get up at six in the
morning. She said she had come too far to skip any part of the
Olympics. She was the only platform diver to go to the opening
ceremonies. Four days before the competition her father had gone
through heart surgery, so half her family was home in
Pennsylvania with him and half was with her. All kinds of
emotions were floating inside her. She wasn't expected to do
much; the Chinese and the Russians were the heavy favorites. She
marched in the opening ceremonies. She slept from two to six.
She finished the first of the two days of competition in second
place. O'Brien jokingly suggested that she go for an eight-mile
walk with him that night to continue this new training procedure
she had developed for the finals.
"I went to acupuncture," she says of the cures she has sought
since January. "I went first to Dr. Lee, who stuck needles in my
ear, and then to Dr. Nevel, who stuck needles in my lower back.
I still go to him. I took more homeopathic remedies. I have a
list: rhubarb, dragon bone, oyster shell, cinnamon twigs,
ginseng, ginger and a lot of Chinese herbs I can't name. I still
take them, eight pills, four times a day, in addition to my
vitamins. A mother of a student of my friend Julie Bell, who's a
high school teacher, suggested niacin. I took that. I went to
the Upledger Institute of CranioSacral Therapy in West Palm.
They rubbed my back and neck to 'loosen the fascia.' I only went
once. Someone suggested I call a man named Pete Egoscue in
California. He works with Jack Nicklaus. I talked to him for a
half hour. He asked me to do certain things, like stand against
a wall. I did them. The last thing he asked was that I come see
him in San Diego. I said I didn't have the money for that. I did
buy his book. I took meclizine after all, on the instruction of
Dr. Vince Wroblewski. It made me exhausted. I told him I won't
be dizzy because I won't be awake. I took Tegretol, an
antiseizure medicine. I took everything."
On the seventh of her eight dives on the second day at
Barcelona, Clark was still second. She let herself think about
what that meant, that she would receive a medal. Then she fell
apart in the dive. She left the platform in second place and
came out of the water in fifth. O'Brien told her she still had a
chance. Her final dive, a backward 1-1/2 with 2-1/2 twists, felt
good. She came out of the water to cheers but didn't know what
they meant. O'Brien shouted to her, "Bronze!" She let the word
sink in but didn't know what to say. The cameras focused on her.
"Cool," she said.
"Ron thinks I should go slower, try one procedure at a time, but
I'm not like that," she says. "I want to get back. I'll try
anything. I'll try them all at once. I'm giving this the best
shot, as far as it goes."
The schedule ahead is sketchy. She is missing one pre-Olympic
competition after another. The Pan Ams are gone. The nationals
start Aug. 9, the World Cup a month later. The absolute cutoff
date is June 19, 1996, the day of the U.S. Olympic Trials, but
realistically she would have to practice for at least a month
before that. A ninth dive has been added to the women's
competition for these Olympics, and she would need time to learn
Clark tries intermittently to dive, waiting a week, two weeks,
then one or two more between each attempt. She has failed them
all. O'Brien has talked to various coaches and learned about
three lower-level divers who were troubled by the same
phenomenon. None of those divers was able to return to the
sport. The most notable athlete to be affected by vertigo was
baseball player Nick Esasky, in 1990. He also never returned to
previous form. "Everyone mentions Nick to me," Clark says. "I
would like to talk with him."
She also hears a lot about the Alfred Hitchcock movie Vertigo
but has never seen it. She has to explain to people that her
illness is not a fear of heights but dizziness. She finds that
most people don't know how to approach her. Should they be sad?
Should they laugh a little? What? She doesn't know. She has been
both sad and upbeat during these six months.
"I'm a realist," Clark says about her future. "I have some
perspective. There are a lot of people looking for solutions to
problems a lot worse than mine. I'm fine. I'm not walking
off-balance. I'm healthy. I see this as a test: Attention--this
is only a test. I don't know what it means, but I'm going to
What else can she do? It is worth it to find out if it was worth
it. She knows that already.