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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS

Ruehl Is Surprise Contender for Medal

Diving: She finishes preliminary round in second place. Clark also qualifies for semifinals with final effort.

July 27, 1996|MIKE HISERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ATLANTA — A relatively unheralded diver comes from next to nowhere to place herself smack in the middle of medal contention.

Let's see, where have we heard this one before?

Barcelona, 1992. The diver was Mary Ellen Clark.

Well, Clark was in the thick of the drama Friday at the Georgia Tech Aquatic Center, but this time she wasn't the one bolting to a high place in the standings.

Meet Clark's roommate for these Games, Becky Ruehl, an 18-year-old from Lakeside Park, Ky.

Ruehl stunned just about everyone by finishing the five-dive preliminary round off the platform in second place, only 5.34 points behind pacesetter Fu Mingxia of China.

Ruehl's coach, Charlie Casuto, was among those pleasantly surprised.

Asked if he expected such a performance, he said, "Not six months ago, six weeks ago, six hours ago, not even six minutes ago.

"That's pretty much the best she's ever done. She does some dives like that, but not five in a row."

Ruehl not only was good, she was consistent.

Her first dive put her fourth. Her next moved her to second, where she stayed.

Clark, conversely, ran the gamut. She opened in a tie for sixth, moved to third after two dives, then did a free fall by miscalculating on her next two efforts.

With one dive to go, Clark was 18th among the 33 divers, needing to at least hold her place to move on to the semifinal round tonight.

Perhaps it's a good thing she didn't know that. Certainly her coach, Ron O'Brien, wasn't about to tell her.

"All he said was that I needed a good, solid dive," Clark said. "Not a great one, but a good one. I think he did that so he wouldn't make me completely stressed."

She did know that her work was cut out for her, however. And she responded. Clark's back 1 1/2 somersault with 2 1/2 twists earned her mostly 7.5s and 8s. It also vaulted her into 12th.

Clark and the others carry their preliminary scores into a round of four dives this morning. Twelve will advance--dropping their preliminary scores, but keeping their numbers from the morning dives--into the final at night.

From her tenuous start, Clark said she learned she must stay aggressive.

"The two dives I missed I wasn't [aggressive]," she said. "I'm going to come out tomorrow and go after every dive."

A dramatic comeback certainly wouldn't be Clark's first.

Clark, 33, trying to become the oldest U.S. diver to win an Olympic medal, last year had a nine-month bout with vertigo that nearly ended her career.

A couple of bad dives weren't going to succeed in prematurely stopping her here. Especially with her father, Gene, watching. He has been battling cancer.

Nor were her own struggles enough to keep her from enjoying the success of Ruehl, with whom she has been putting up positive-thinking slogans around the room they share in the athletes' village.

Ruehl, Clark said, was "incredibly awesome."

But she will need to remain that way.

The Chinese, whose highly regarded contingent took a dive in the swimming competition, do not appear ready for a similar ugly plunge from the platform.

Fu was never lower than fourth in the standings and took over the lead with a solid effort on her last dive, a difficult inward 3 1/2 somersault.

Her teammate, Guo Jingjing, was the leader through the first four rounds until a poor last effort dropped her to fourth.

Ruehl won't be looking over her shoulder, though. "I don't think about the competition," she said. "I just think about mowing dives."

She did that, all right, and most everyone was taking notice of the new kid on the platform.

Included in that group was Clark's coach, Ron O'Brien. "She looked great," he said, "just like she was diving in a backyard pool."

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