Wendy Lian Williams is 22, but she feels much older.
"I was watching the Miss Universe pageant the other night," she said, "and I started thinking about all the times I watched it as a kid. I was awed by all the beautiful women then. Now, I'm awed by all the beautiful girls ."
Williams, too, is one of the beautiful ones, which is worth mentioning only because it has opened the doors to a modeling career that allows her to continue her bid to remain one of the world's best divers.
Her latest gig resulted in an ad for a swimsuit line that's running in the current issues of Glamour and Cosmopolitan as well as other magazines. Williams' body is painted like the clouds-and-sky background, highlighting the suit as she seemingly floats in the air, her face to the heavens, her back arching toward earth.
The ad creates the intended eye-catching effect, and its text unintentionally captures the essence of Williams' diving career, a tumbling dream of confused images:
\o7 She wants to cry, but knows she must not. She's so enraptured, it's as if electricity is coursing through her body. Then she's crying again, but she's not sure why.
\f7 Wendy Lian Williams feels old, but not because she has traveled throughout the world while winning a world championship and an NCAA title and a bronze medal in the Olympic Games.
It's just that when you stop and reflect on the emotional torment and the highs and lows she has experienced in the past decade, well, it's enough to leave almost anyone drained.
Anyone except maybe Williams, who outwardly displays enough verve to supply a legion of cheerleaders. She can recite her personal great depressions with matter-of-fact perspective and sum it all up: "Oh, but what a learning experience. It's sort of a broader sense of knowledge that's stored away for the rest of my life and will help me get through other hard times."
Williams, the NCAA women's diver of the year in 1989, gave up her senior year of eligibility at the University of Miami when she decided to accept a number of endorsement offers last spring. But that was just one line in a string of mini-retirements on Williams' resume.
Last month, she moved to Laguna Beach and is now training with Mission Viejo Nadadores Coach Janet Ely-Lagourgue, who competed in both the 1972 and '76 Olympics. Thursday, Williams embarked on yet another mini-comeback, placing second in the semifinals of the platform event at the U.S. Indoor Diving Championships in Beaverton, Ore. The finals are Sunday.
"I feel so good about the move," Williams said. "I found an apartment that is exactly the place I want to be, and Janet and I have this really great rapport. I'm so happy now."
Even with this everything's-hunky-dory approach, there's a trace of doubt in Williams' voice. No one knows better how easy it is to lose focus on the positive and how fleeting a sense of well-being can be.
Ely-Lagourgue said: "When Scott (Reich, the former Miami diving coach) resigned and left the sport (last May), I spoke with Wendy with the intention of trying to talk her into staying at Miami, but she was scrutinizing everything with a fear factor. She was a veteran athlete who felt as if the rug had been pulled out from under her and she was not able to adjust.
"She was just too depressed at that point. She didn't feel she would ever get herself out of the dumps, so I think the change of scenery has helped. She's training well, but her confidence is still sagging. There's a great deal of pressure on an accomplished athlete to stay on top, and a lot of factors have blinded her from seeing that she can be better than ever."
So, yet again, Williams is standing 30 feet above a pool, waging war with her fears and self-doubts, and taking the inevitable plunge.
"You've got to be willing to fail," Ely-Lagourgue reminds her newest charge. "It's like that with a dive, or a workout, or a relationship with a man. You've got to decide to let go and take a chance."
Williams' story is not really a sad one, though. Indeed, it's a story of accomplishment and glory, of a young girl's determination and courage, and of a young woman's battle to discover who she is and who she wants to be.
A little girl lay in her bed in Bridgeton, Mo., fantasizing about winning a gold medal in the Olympics. And then she would start to cry.
"I had so much motivation then, but I didn't know what to do with it," Williams said.
She began diving as a 3-year-old who tagged along with an older sister to workouts. Her father, Charles, was her coach during her pre-teen years and he made up in dedication what he lacked in technical expertise. He would come home from work, eat dinner and then drive an hour to a St. Louis pool, where Wendy would faithfully work out for 2 1/2 hours.
Most nights, they were the only ones in the complex.
Williams said those hours she spent alone with her dad were some of the best of her life, but it was a period that both knew would come to an end.