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It Hasn't Exactly Been a Model Life for Wendy Williams : Diving: She left her family at 14 to come to Mission Viejo and eventually won a bronze medal at Seoul, but she never felt that good about taking the plunge.

April 20, 1990|JOHN WEYLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"I was diving with (University of Michigan Coach) Dick Kimble in the summer, and it got to the point where my dad and I both knew (my dad) didn't know what to do for me anymore," she said. "I'd dive, and he'd say, 'What would Dick say about that dive?' And I'd say, 'I don't know, Dad. I can't see it. That's what coaches are for.' "

So Williams, at 14, made what she says was a not-so-difficult decision to leave home and move halfway across the country to live with new families and train with Ron O'Brien, then the Mission Viejo coach.

"I sort of felt like I was smothering back home," she said. "It was kind of like torture. I mean here was a board, here was a pool, but there was no one to help me improve. And I had so much drive.

"I wanted to dive so badly. I wanted it so bad. People said, 'Don't do it. Don't leave your family. You'll be lonely. You'll get burned out. You'll be sorry.'

"And they were all right."

Williams lived with four host families in Mission Viejo, staying about one year with each.

"The first two families, well, I was so young and it was just a very different life style than the way I was brought up," she said. "I have three sisters, all of whom are 10 to 15 years older, and I got a lot of attention. Moving was a very tough adjustment. I missed the guidance of my family.

"There were times when I was so lost and so lonely and I couldn't even tell my parents because they'd say, 'Well, you better come home then.' So I used to fight back the tears on the phone because I wanted to dive."

Ask Williams if, looking back now, it was worth it, and she responds emphatically, "Yes." But when faced with the next inevitable question, she pauses and sighs.

"If I had a son or daughter that wanted to do that, I don't know if I could let them go. I don't think I could let them go."

From the first day she climbed the ladder and managed to push herself off the edge of the tower, it was obvious that Williams had the physical potential to make her mark as a platform diver.

But there has always been a question--at least in her mind--as to whether or not she possessed the necessary mental tenacity.

"I always felt the tower was bigger than me," she said. "I was always afraid of it and I always felt I was more afraid of it than everyone else.

"Ron (O'Brien) was trying to teach me a new dive, and I was just too scared to try it. I was really distraught after climbing down and said I was quitting platform. Ron took me into his office and said, 'Forget the dive but don't quit tower. It's your ticket to the Olympics.' "

And every time she attempted to abandon her career as a platform diver, she heard the same argument. So she persevered.

Then, in the summer of 1988, all the work--not to mention mental anguish--paid a big dividend: Williams won a bronze medal in the 10-meter event at the Olympic Games in Seoul.

It's hard to find an athlete who has been competing since his or her early teens who can't isolate a period that can be labeled, "Burnout."

Williams' 'B-Word' file is rather large. But for her, it hit just after her senior year at Mission Viejo High School and lasted nearly a year.

"That summer, I went to six major meets in six weeks and then left for the World Student Games in Japan," she said. "I was so tired and I started getting lost on my dives and wiping out.

"Getting lost is usually a very occasional thing, but in a period of three weeks, I got lost 10 or 12 times, and it was playing major mental games with me. Looking back, I think it was my mind's way of saying, 'You need a rest.' "

But this was no time for the weary. The national championships were scheduled for St. Louis in the summer of 1985, and Williams was expected to return home from her four-year sabbatical in the aquatic promised land of Mission Viejo as a conquering hero.

"Everyone treated me regally," she said, "and I wanted to have a great meet so badly. Unfortunately, I was afraid of my own shadow and really just dying to quit diving altogether."

After two particularly painful wipeouts during practice, Williams spent a tearful session with a sports psychologist who suggested she take the rest of the day off, go home and relax in the warmth of family and friends.

She should have gotten a second opinion.

"I was driving home in my dad's VW bug, and the engine blew up," she said. "I was on one of those curving, connecting ramps between freeways, and the car just froze. It was a single lane, the speed limit was 55 and I knew I'd better not stay there. So, I jumped out. There was no one coming, so I started pushing the car to the side of the road. There were flames coming out the back and everything.

"I didn't realize it was sort of a downward slope, and all of sudden I couldn't stop the car. I couldn't get in to put on the brake, and it just rolled over the side into a ditch. And when it hit the bottom, it just went ka-boom into a ball of flames.

"I was just standing there bawling and shaking all over. And this was what I was supposed to do to relax."

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