Platform diving seems a matter more of personality than of
athletic ability. The midair acrobatics require precision, of
course. So much revolution, so many rotations, so many
splashless entries--this is body control few other sports
require. But then there's the issue of standing almost 33 feet
above the pool, kicking out blindly, trusting technique and
knowing that no matter how well or poorly the dive is done,
there will be an impact, at about 30 miles per hour, with a
surface that is never as forgiving as it looks.
Vertigo aside (and it's not always; American diver Mary Ellen
Clark had to overcome it to win a bronze medal), it takes guts
to reconcile so much artistry with the worst elements of a
contact sport. Twist, turn, somersault--car crash. No wonder
they stand atop the platform so long wringing their towels dry.
Yet some people do it and do it well. It used to be the U.S.
divers who did it best, Greg Louganis winning all the men's
diving events in 1984 and '88. But China's athletes copied him
so well that it looked as if they would take all the gold medals
in diving in these Olympics.
But when you're jumping off the equivalent of a three-story
building, trying to make something that feels so bad look so
good, anything can happen. Russia's Dmitri Sautin, who had
faltered in the springboard event, was no newcomer. He had won
the bronze in the springboard in 1992 but was unable to earn a
medal on the platform that year because a knife wound had caused
him to miss too much training. A gang of kids had attacked him,
and while he suffered no lasting damage, he does sport a long
scar across his abdomen. He had faced down scarier situations
than a 10-meter plunge into water.
So here he stood on the platform, his dives' degree of
difficulty (how about a reverse 3 1/2 somersault?) among the
highest of all the competitors'. The height, power and boldness
of his dives have long masked fundamental weaknesses--bent
knees, unpointed toes. But his acrobatics were marvelous and his
Dive after dive in the finals he maintained his lead. His
victory became a given, nobody wondering at his achievement. It
all reminded his former coach Sam Slobovnov, now a professor at
Penn State, of the day he discovered Sautin. The boy was seven.
He walked to the edge of the 33-foot platform and just laughed.