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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS

Fu Fighters Find They Can't Make Splash

Diving: Chinese star a repeat gold medalist but Clark of U.S. completes return from vertigo by winning bronze.

July 28, 1996|ROBYN NORWOOD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ATLANTA — Mary Ellen Clark came back from the brink Saturday night.

Back from the dizzying battle with vertigo that nearly ended her career, and back from a brush with elimination in the preliminaries.

She recovered too from a poor third dive in the finals of the women's 10-meter platform to win the bronze medal, the same medal she won four years ago in Barcelona.

Clark's repeat as bronze medalist at 33 pales a bit beside the achievement of China's Fu Mingxia, who won the gold in Barcelona at 13 and now has won her second at 17. Fu led from her first dive on, and incredibly, had enough points to win the bronze before she attempted her final dive.

Fu dominated the field in part because of the difficulty of her dives, with only one rated below 3.0--a level five of the 12 divers didn't attempt at all. Her best was a back 3 1/2-somersault tuck rated a 3.3 that drew scores as high as 8.5.

Fu will also compete in the springboard competition, trying to become the first woman to win both events since Ingrid Kramer of the former East Germany in 1960.

In the platform final, Annika Walter of Germany won the silver, and American Becky Ruehl, 18, finished fourth, well behind Clark.

What Clark did was the triumph of an iron will, and something of a tribute to her father, who is battling cancer.

"She's the comeback kid," said U.S. Coach Ron O'Brien. "She sure showed a lot of heart. It's nice to see her go out with a medal around her neck. . . . She's the hardest-working-bulldog type of diver. She digs a hole for herself by making a mistake, but she comes back and makes up for it."

The hole Clark dug Saturday came on her third dive, when she under-rotated a back 2 1/2-somersault pike after a stray horn sounded, earning no higher than a 5.0, and drawing a 2.9 from one judge. But she came back to thrill the crowd at Georgia Tech Aquatic Center by finishing with a difficult inward 3 1/2-somersault tuck and a back 1 1/2 somersault with 2 1/2 twists, drawing scores as high as 8.0 on both.

She might not have medaled, though, if China's Guo Jingjing, 14, hadn't faltered on her fourth dive.

After nearly seeing her career end only a year ago, Clark didn't let the opportunity pass.

"Ron doesn't know it, but I looked at the scoreboard," she said. "I never watch, but for once I wanted to see where I was because I knew it was tight."

Clark didn't quite announce her retirement, but said it was "definitely one of the last times the American public is going to see me dive," leaving the door open to compete in the national championships.

Clark sat out most of 1995 because of vertigo--a devastating condition for one who hurls herself off a 30-foot platform. In her search for a cure, she gave up alcohol and caffeine, took alternative medicines, saw multiple doctors and tried acupuncture before overcoming it.

"A year ago, I wasn't even wearing a bathing suit, to put it all in perspective," she said. "I was trying to find answers. I was in a career mode, and diving was not part of it. This is a definite comeback."

Clark, who needed a solid final dive Friday in the preliminaries to advance to Saturday's semifinals, came through with the third-best performance of the morning session, putting herself in contention to repeat her bronze-medal victory of 1992.

"I just gave Ron my brain," Clark said. "I felt more relaxed, more focused technically."

Only the semifinal score carried over to the final, meaning she was rid of her 12th-place score from the preliminaries.

Her teammate and roommate at the Olympics, Ruehl, had been third after the first two sessions, but only her seventh-place morning finish carried over to the final. Ruehl started with a poor first dive, but moved up with her third, a back 1 1/2 somersault with 2 1/2 twists. That put her in second place, but she faltered on her fourth dive.

Ruehl's biggest shortcoming might be the low degree of difficulty on her list, which she said she will work on for 2000 after her surprising performance this year.

With Clark approaching retirement, eyes will turn to her or others.

"I'm so proud of Mary Ellen," O'Brien said. "One judge came over and said, 'She just won't quit,' and I said, 'You said it all.' "

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

MEDALISTS

Women's Diving

PLATFORM

Gold: Fu Mingxia, China

Silver: Annika Walter, Germany

Bronze: Mary Ellen Clark, United States

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