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While Sautin, Fu Aim for History, American Teams Will Face Obstacles as They Try to Make a Big Splash

September 10, 2000|DIANE PUCIN


* OVERVIEW--In 1992, Fu Mingxia was a tiny, unknown 13-year-old from China who entered the water without causing a fuss--no splash, no noise, nothing but a straight line dropping silently into the water. From nowhere, Fu won a gold medal, a fearless little girl leaping off the 33-foot platform.

As a 17-year-old in Atlanta, more muscular but no less smooth and silky on her entries, she won two more gold medals, dominating both the springboard and platform.

Now 22, she is aiming to become the first female diver in Olympic history to win five gold medals. She will be favored to do so.

She retired after 1996 but only for a year. Nothing in diving has been as certain as her elegant performances over the last eight years.

Nothing has been as certain over the history of Olympic diving than a U.S. diver winning a medal. Since 1920 American women have won at least one per Olympics. That streak could be at risk. The only returning diver from the 1996 U.S. team is 22-year-old Jenny Keim, who finished ninth on the springboard in Atlanta.

On platform for the U.S. is Laura Wilkinson, a 22-year-old from The Woodlands, Texas, who won gold at the 1998 Goodwill Games but who finished a disappointing 12th at the 2000 Diving World Cup. The other U.S. platform diver is 20-year-old Sara Reiling, an Indiana University junior who has not qualified to compete in any major international meets at the senior level.

* OTHERS TO WATCH--A pair of Chinese--Guo Jingjing, 18, who beat countrywoman Fu on the springboard at the 2000 World Cup, and 15-year-old Sang Xue, who won the 1999 World Cup gold medal on the platform. And a pair of Russians, 27-year-old Irina Lashko, who is trying to become the first woman to win three consecutive springboard medals (she earned silver in both 1992 and 1996) and 26-year-old Vera Ilyina, who abandoned training with the financially strapped Russian team to compete for the University of Texas and twice become NCAA Diver of the Year while graduating with honors.

* BEST STORY--Wilkinson broke three bones in her right foot three months before the U.S. Olympic trials while doing dry land training.

Certain her Olympic dream was dead, Wilkinson answered the door to her apartment the morning after her accident at 6 a.m. to be greeted by her coach, Ken Armstrong. He told her in no uncertain terms to quit feeling sorry for herself and to keep thinking Olympics.

She hobbled to the pool on crutches every day and worked at whatever she could. She couldn't do her complete dive list until three weeks before the Olympic trials but blew away the competition.

She came to the U.S. Nationals at Mission Viejo three weeks ago and scored six 10s on one dive and easily won her 10th national title. She wears a thick, rubber kayak bootie each time she climbs the 33 feet up to the top of the platform to protect the injured foot, which will need surgery after the Olympics. When Wilkinson drops the bootie, watch out below.


* KEY DATES--Sept. 24, platform final. Sept. 25, Sept. 28, springboard final.


Fast Fact

* Fu Mingxia was the second-youngest gold medal winner in diving history in 1992. American Marjorie Gestring was 78 days younger in 1936, when she won gold on the springboard.

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