ATHENS — On most days, Mark Ruiz reaches the top of the platform and beats back the fears that haunt him. He takes a breath, reminds himself that he need only look for the water as a reference point, and jumps off a platform that juts 10 meters (33 feet) above a pool.
At the finals of the U.S. Olympic diving trials in June, those fears conquered him.
Ruiz calls himself a visual diver rather than a feel diver, meaning he must see the water to know where he is in the air. Poor lighting in the pool in St. Peters, Mo., robbed him of that landmark as he did an arm-stand triple dive in his last practice session. He hit the water chest-first, hard enough to burst blood vessels in his legs and require hospital treatment.
He forced himself back to the pool for the final and stood second behind Kyle Prandi -- with whom he already had qualified for the team in the synchronized event -- when his dreaded dive came up. He walked away, which meant relinquishing a possible berth in the individual 10-meter platform competition.
"My heart really felt for him," Prandi said.
Ruiz, 25, came back to perform what should have been his sixth dive but he got little sense of closure. Time and the aid of a sports psychologist have brought him to the point of feeling confident about Saturday's synchronized platform event, but he will always be torn by the opposing tugs of fright and fascination before he dives.
"That's been the toughest part of my entire diving career. That's the hardest thing I've ever had to go through because it just kind of resurfaced my fear of heights," said Ruiz, who competed in all three diving events at the Sydney Games and finished sixth in the 10-meter competition, seventh in three-meter springboard and seventh in the synchronized platform with David Pichler.
"It took a few weeks, to be honest, after the trials. I was almost afraid of getting back up on the 10 meters. There were a lot of things going on outside of diving. This was something I have to deal with day in and day out, overcoming my fears and demons every day."
The fear "is not an issue" now, said Ruiz, who was born in Puerto Rico and moved to Orlando, Fla., with his family when he was 12. The lighting at the Olympic Aquatic Complex is good and he is in a positive frame of mind, although he wonders what might have happened if he'd found the strength to complete that arm-stand dive.
Asked if that incident might yet benefit him somehow, he paused. "I tried to look for the reason," he said this week. "What are those reasons? Why did it happen that way? I thought about it for a while and I still feel like I could be on that podium in that individual event as well....
"If anything it's going to make me a stronger person. Having to go through all of that and having persevered through that, all the fears and everything, and also believing myself that I can conquer anything I put my mind into and overcome anything I can put my mind to."
He rebuffed congratulatory handshakes after the trials because he considered himself a failure, but Prandi disagreed. Prandi has a unique perspective, having endured a similar experience a week before the 2000 Olympic trials with a planned reverse 3 1/2 dive. However, he had time to scrap that in favor of a dive with which he felt secure, a luxury Ruiz didn't have.
"In retrospect, he was very courageous," Prandi said. "You do a dive for so many years and all of a sudden it's not there in your head. That is the most frightening thing....
"For him to get up there and to finish, that took courage and says a lot about his character."
Every diver, at some moment, must weigh terror against the zest for a physical and mental challenge. For almost everyone, terror sometimes wins out. "I dove platform, and it's a healthy respect when you're up there," said Kimiko Soldati, who will compete on the three-meter springboard. "I don't know if 'fear' is the correct word. Once you're up there, at this level, you need to be sharp."
Cassandra Cardinell said she made fear work for her. "I love coming to practice and having fear and overcoming it," said Cardinell, who will compete in women's synchronized 10-meter platform with Sara Hildebrand. Fear sharpens her senses, "and if you lose focus in the 10-meter, you hurt yourself."
Ruiz said sessions with the team's psychologist illuminated the roots of his inability to do that arm-stand triple. "He helped me understand that the reason I was afraid at the trials was not because I was afraid of smashing but because I wasn't in control, and I'm so used to being in control of everything," he said. "I lost control of my dive, and that's when I became very afraid."
He has subdued those fears and hopes they remain at bay during the synchronized event, which he envisions as his Olympic finale. "I told Kyle we've got to win the gold medal," he said, "because we dive great, we can win the gold medal. We dive well, we're going to be up on the podium, so go for the gold.
"I'm extremely grateful that I'm here at the Olympic Games and I have a great shot at winning a medal, and that's always been my hope since I was a kid, to win a medal at the Olympic Games. I just hope my dream becomes a reality."