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DON'T LOOK NOW SCOTT DONIE, DRIVEN OFF THE PLATFORM BY NERVES AND DEPRESSION, WON THE U.S. TRIALS IN THE SPRINGBOARD

July 01, 1996
July 01, 1996

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July 1, 1996

DON'T LOOK NOW SCOTT DONIE, DRIVEN OFF THE PLATFORM BY NERVES AND DEPRESSION, WON THE U.S. TRIALS IN THE SPRINGBOARD

He was upside down, 33 feet in the air, fingers clenched on the
edge of the platform and toes pointed straight up at the sky.
The crowd below was awaiting another breathtaking performance
from the best daredevil diver in the United States, but Scott
Donie had other images racing through his mind. It was the sixth
of his 10 scheduled dives at the 1993 Olympic Festival in San
Antonio, and Donie, the '92 Olympic silver medalist, was
thinking about screwing up, about crashing into the water at 30
mph and getting hurt. He was losing his nerve right there on the
10-meter platform.

This is an article from the July 1, 1996 issue Original Layout

As the blood rushed to his head and his arms began to quiver,
Donie held his handstand position for 15 seconds...20... 25.
Judy Donie, sitting nervously below, thought her son was ailing;
perhaps a nagging wrist injury had flared up and left him
immobile. The rest of the crowd didn't know what to think. How
long could he stay up there? A typical platform diver holds the
position for three or four seconds. Donie was up there for 30
...then 35. He was in the lead, but suddenly he was frozen in
place, like a kitten trapped up a tree.

"The easiest thing for me to do was just do my dive and not tell
anyone what was wrong," says Donie, 27, who last week finished
first in the springboard at the Olympic trials in Indianapolis.
"Divers are proud people. You don't just stop in the middle of a
meet. You don't just walk off the platform."

But that's just what Donie did. He felt he had no choice. His
heart and his head were no longer in the game. He says he
thought about doing "a cannonball or something crazy" until he
realized he didn't belong on a platform 33 feet in the air. "I
had gotten so down, so messed up mentally, that it just wasn't
fun for me anymore," says Donie. "I was up there, looking down
and thinking, 'What am I doing?' I could've killed myself. It
just got to the point where I said, 'Forget this. It's over.'"

For Donie there was only one way to come back from the brink.
Although diving had been his life since he was 10, he now would
have to learn to live without it. He took six months off, and
when he made his return, it was on the springboard, which is
only 10 feet above the water. He found that height far less
daunting, and by last weekend the country's best male platform
diver in 1992 had become its No. 1 springboard competitor for '96.

The other male springboarder to qualify for Atlanta was Mark
Lenzi, the 1992 gold medalist in the event, who took nearly two
years off after the Barcelona Games because of burnout. Lenzi,
27, was fourth and all but out of contention going into the
finals last Friday until he turned in a masterly performance,
nailing a reverse 3 1/2 somersault tuck in the final round that
earned 101.85 points, equaling the second-highest score ever
achieved on a single dive.

Inspirational comebacks were also in vogue on the women's team,
where Mary Ellen Clark, recovering from vertigo, won the
platform. The only less-than-uplifting moment came after the
competition had ended Sunday, when one of the men's platform
qualifiers, David Pichler, launched into a tirade against his
former coach, Ron O'Brien, who is now one of the U.S. team
coaches. Pichler accused O'Brien of making his life "sheer hell"
since he left O'Brien's tutelage last fall; O'Brien denied the
accusation but said that the two no longer speak.

None of those sidelights could overshadow the story of Donie's
long, hard journey to Atlanta. "San Antonio was actually the
beginning of my turnaround," says Donie, who began suffering
from depression after returning from Barcelona and discovering
how little an Olympic medal had changed his life. There were no
big endorsement deals awaiting him, no invitations from Regis
and Kathie Lee. He could still walk down the aisle at the
grocery store back home in Miami without being asked for an
autograph. Didn't these people realize what he had just done?
His entire life had been geared toward one glorious moment in
the summer of '92, and now, a few weeks later, his medal didn't
seem to matter. Instead of the marching bands and victory
parades that Donie had expected would greet him, there were only
pats on the back from other divers and coaches. The post-Olympic
depression that hits many athletes in the lower-profile sports
came down especially hard on Donie.

"When I was 10 years old, I thought I would be rich and famous
because of the Olympics," says Donie. "I would look at Bruce
Jenner, and I'd think, That's me. But I realized after Barcelona
that there were something like 100 [U.S.] medalists, and there
can only be so many heroes. There are a million great stories,
and there's just not enough room for all of them."

Donie can be sure that there will be room for his story this
time. In the last four years his life has taken enough emotional
twists and turns to fill a miniseries. When he wasn't drinking
in Miami nightclubs, he was usually sitting home alone feeling
sorry for himself. He grew a goatee, gained 30 pounds and had
his navel pierced. A diver? In San Antonio he looked more like a
Deadhead.

Once a health nut who pleaded with his mother to give up
cigarettes, Donie began smoking. His parents, who live in
Houston, would call Scott in Miami and beg him to seek help. "I
would say, 'So how you doing?' and there would just be silence,"
says Judy.

Donie thumbed through a book on mental illnesses and realized he
was reading about himself. "I went down the list:
obsessive-compulsive behavior, manic depression, you name it,"
he says. "I was pretty screwed up. I think I had a number of
nervous breakdowns."

While the newspaper accounts of his withdrawal in San Antonio
had left the impression that he was suicidal, Donie says he
never considered ending his life. "Reporters can be pretty
insensitive," he says. "I mean, I actually had one guy say, 'If
you did decide to kill yourself, how would you do it?' So I went
along with him and said, 'Oh, I'd probably see how many flips I
could do off a bridge.'"

The suggestion that he had considered ending his life led to an
invitation to address the American Suicide Foundation in 1993.
In his speech he mentioned his desire to teach children, and the
next day he got a call informing him that there was an opening
for a part-time teaching assistant at the McGlannan School in
Miami. Donie got the job in the fall of '93, teaching first- and
second-graders with learning disabilities, and he is still at
the private school, putting in two hours a day between workouts.
As much as anything, he says, his students set him on his path
back to the Olympics.

"I know it sounds corny, but those kids let me help them," he
says. "And when you help someone, you help yourself. These kids
helped me feel good about myself. They made me realize how lucky
I am."

Soon after taking the job, Donie gave up smoking and made up his
mind to get back into shape and return to the diving board. He
competed off the platform in one meet in 1995 but withdrew after
the preliminaries. He just doesn't need the pressure anymore.

Donie hopes to take a medal home from Atlanta, but he insists
success isn't the only thing that matters now. When he climbs
out of the pool, win or lose, his friends and family will still
be there. There may not be a parade, but the kids at the
McGlannan School will be cheering for him. This time, that's
enough.

As Donie returned to his hotel after midnight last Friday,
following his victory in the trials, a contingent of friends and
family was waiting in an adjacent restaurant. There were more
than 40 of them, many wearing T-shirts that said scott on the
front and solid on the back. "This is what it's all about," said
Donie, sitting in the middle of the party. "It's not about
winning medals or making money or any of that. It's about
enjoying the moment. I promise you: This time I won't forget
that."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN BIEVER For months Donie couldn't face the reality that his '92 silver had brought him no fame or fortune. [Overhead view of Scott Donie diving]COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN BIEVER A rising star at age 18, Becky Ruehl soared to second place behind Clark in the women's platform. [Becky Ruehl diving in front of U.S. flag]COLOR PHOTO: TOM LYNN Pichler made the men's platform team, then used his press conference as a platform to air complaints. [David Pichler diving from platform]