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Atlanta 1996 / 17 Days to the Games

PRECIOUS MEDAL? : After His Career and Life Tumbled, Lenzi Decided to Take Another Dive

July 02, 1996|CHRIS DUFRESNE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Nervous?" the coach wondered.

"No," the diver said.

Once, maybe. Once, standing on the three-meter springboard with all his hopes tucked in a pending reverse 3 1/2 somersault, Mark Lenzi might have freaked.

But not this time. Not in Indianapolis, on this Friday night, June 21, on this do-or-die last dive at the U.S. Olympic trials.

Not after where he had been. Not after winning gold in 1992 at Barcelona and sitting next to Jay Leno one week, then waiting for the phone to ring the next.

Not after Wheaties chose not make him the next American hero; after sitting alone in his Bloomington, Ind., apartment, college-kid broke, his body paralyzed by depression.

"It hit so hard I couldn't get up," Lenzi recalls. "I would be sitting on the couch, and I could not physically get up."

Hobie Billingsley?

Well, Hobie was nervous enough for the both of them. Lenzi's coach tried to put himself in Mark's toes up on the board.

"I'd either go right in my pants or I would faint," Billingsley estimates.

Gladly, he did not inform Lenzi of this. Billingsley, in fact, said little.

Lenzi knew the score. Everyone did. With one dive left at the Olympic trials, Lenzi was in fourth place. Only the top two divers in springboard would make the team.

Lenzi needed an almost perfect effort on the the most difficult dive in the sport to move up two positions and become an Olympian.

Billingsley sized up the situation.

"It's like saying this: You're in the U.S. Open, coming up to the 18th hole and you have to get a hole in one or you lose."

Lenzi didn't see it that way. He stood on the board in almost an eerie calm.

What single dive could be worse than what he had been through? What newspaper account could injure him more than the one he once read about himself--"Lenzi Threatens to Sell Gold Medal"--igniting a firestorm for the news hounds and tabloid tattlers who rang his phone off the hook and didn't know half the story?

Sell his gold?

Growing up in Fredericksburg, Va., the son of a Navy physicist, Lenzi dreamed of winning Olympic gold as far back as he could remember; he felt predestined to do so. He started the quest as a swimmer, switched to wrestling in high school then, at 18, suddenly announced he wanted to become a diver, confounding his parents.

Yet, a year later, he had earned a scholarship at Indiana University. Three years later he was the FINA World Cup one-meter champion.

Six years later he won the gold in springboard at Barcelona.

Sell his gold?

Lenzi, 27, was born on the Fourth of July. How much more American could he get?

The pursuit of the medal cost him a social life. And a wife.

The engagement broke off the year before the Barcelona Games, Lenzi citing diving as one of the reasons.

"That was rough," he says of the breakup. "I wasn't suicidal, but I was close. That was the roughest time in my life. It took me years to get over that."

The "Lenzi-selling-his-gold" story grew so many legs Lenzi gave up trying to set the record straight and started telling people what they wanted to hear.

Few seemed interested in the real story, which Lenzi says was this:

After Barcelona, he fell into deep post-Olympic blues. He never intended to cash in on his glory, but became rather full of himself after some fleeting post-Olympic fanfare.

He walked into a convenience store before his "Tonight Show" appearance, and some kid yelled out his name.

"You from Virginia?" Lenzi said, thinking the kid might have been kin.

"No," the boy said. "I saw you on TV."

Everything changed.

"I slowly began to realize what I did in Barcelona was a big deal," Lenzi says. "I slowly fell into the trap, thinking I was something great."

Lenzi's 15 minutes of fame were up, but by then he believed he deserved "a piece of the pie."

All he got was crust.

He returned to Bloomington, lived off sponsorship money and began a slow retreat into darkness. He quit diving, started sleeping until two in the afternoon after all-nighters at the local pubs.

Lenzi told few of his despair.

"I'd be sitting in my living room, and I'd just start crying for no reason," he says, "I'd sit there, tears running down my face thinking, 'Why am I upset?' To this day I still don't know."

He gained 35 pounds. Still, coaches from U.S. Diving would occasionally call, imploring him to return.

"I'd say to these guys, 'Forget it: I'm sick of this sport. Leave me alone. I'm done.' I didn't even want to go to a pool. I didn't need people calling me up saying 'You're the only hope we have.' I'm sick of this. That's not going to make me come back."

Lenzi says he didn't decide to "sell" his medal in the depths of his despair. In fact, his plan, as ill-advised as it now seems, was hatched after he had emerged from his funk.

Lenzi never sought counseling.

"I kind of got up one day, walked into the bathroom, saw this fat, pudgy face and red eyes looking back at me and I said, 'Whoa, wait a second.' It was like, 'OK, Mark, you've had your grieving time, now get off your butt and do something.' "

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