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It Was A Golden Albatross Diver Lenzi Made A Big Splash, But Quickly Sunk To The Bottom

The phone’s gotta ring, Mark Lenzi thought as he flopped around on the couch in his Ann Arbor, Mich., apartment three months after the 1992 Summer Olympics.

Surely there’s a demand out there for a diver who was an Olympic gold medalist, a guy who had taken a limo to “The Tonight Show,” a guy who had been on “Regis & Kathie Lee,” a guy whom kids had recognized at the 7-Eleven.

It’s gotta ring.

Olympic gold medal. That’s big, right? How many people out there can say they have an Olympic gold medal? Any minute now, it’s gonna ring. Nike, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s. They’re always looking for sports stars to endorse their products, right? They would love to have an All-American, blue-eyed, born on the Fourth of July, wrestler-turned-diver in commercials. They’ll call. Just be patient. Big money is on the way.

And so, Lenzi waited, and waited, and waited.

Day after day, month after month, well into 1993.

He would sleep in, sit on the couch and watch TV for 5, 6, 7 hours at a time, sometimes not even bothering to switch channels.

His evenings were spent in bars, often reliving his Olympic moment with anyone who’d listen.

Only one call ever came, for an ill-fated movie called “Pumphouse.” The guy sent the corny script, Lenzi returned his call, and the deal fell through. Lenzi kept waiting for more offers.

“I thought I was God’s gift to the world,” said Lenzi, among the Olympic hopefuls in Atlanta for a press briefing. “It’s so easy to fall into that trap. I went from a small-town kid in Virginia to riding a limo to ‘The Tonight Show.’ You train so hard for so long, and you expect that gold medal is going to change your life forever. But it doesn’t. Sometimes, it makes your life worse. The day comes when nobody gives a heck who you are, and I wasn’t prepared.”

The post-Olympic blues, they call it, and Lenzi had a severe case.

So severe he gained 35 pounds, which really shows when you’re 5-feet-4. So severe he considered giving up the medal as collateral for a loan. So severe he is proposing that the U.S. Olympic Committee provide counseling for Olympians-to-be, to warn them of the depression that often follows their achievement of a lifetime.

“I was totally depressed, a real mess,” said Lenzi, 27, who estimates his springboard gold medal earned him $5,000 from a couple of speaking engagements. “I had no motivation to do anything. I felt I had accomplished everything I could in life, and there was nothing left for me to do. I hit rock bottom.”

One day, he woke up with a hangover at 2 p.m., looked at his face in the mirror and didn’t like what he saw: a pathetic soul who wanted the world’s pity and Corporate America’s money. He stared at himself for a long time, and it was only then that Lenzi stopped feeling sorry for himself.

He pulled out of his funk with the help of friends and former Olympians who had gone through similar problems. He enrolled in flight school in Sanford, Fla., in early 1994 and vowed never to dive again. But the pilots in his class begged him to teach them tricks off the side of the pool, and once Lenzi got started, he realized how much he missed the sport.

He returned to Ann Arbor last April to train with coach Dick Kimball. Lenzi was so heavy, he said, he didn’t fit in a Speedo. He climbed onto the diving board in swim trunks.

“This is a vain sport, and I had this big belly hanging out,” Lenzi remembered. “I’d get a great bounce off the board and make a huge splash. Guys made jokes about how I didn’t need a life preserver because I’d float. It was embarrassing, but it helped motivate me.”

They weren’t laughing long. It took Lenzi less than three months to drop to 145 pounds and regain his form.

Next month in Indianapolis, Lenzi will try to make the Olympic team. He is determined to repeat as gold medalist, but this time, he isn’t expecting anything more than a proud feeling. He already has enrolled in meteorology classes at Indiana University for the fall semester. Lenzi became interested in the weather during flight school.

“I’m a lot more mature now, and a lot happier,” said Lenzi, who moved from Ann Arbor to Bloomington, Ind., last month to complete his training with his college coach. “I think I had forgotten why I was an Olympic diver in the first place, which is because I love diving. That should be enough. Nobody owes me anything. I’m not God’s gift. I’m just a diver.”

Despite a sore right shoulder, Lenzi is diving as well as ever. In March, he broke Greg Louganis’ 13-year-old world scoring record with 762.35 points for 11 dives at the HTH Classic in Rockville, Md. Louganis’ best score was 755.49.

Lenzi’s compact body and ability to get vertical make him one of the tightest spinners in the history of the sport. He was the first American to complete a forward 4-1/2 somersault in competition and the first diver in the world to exceed 100 points on a dive, with a 101.85 for a reverse 3-1/2 somersault tuck at the 1991 national championships.

“I always had the highest degree of difficulty and people would ask, ‘Why’s Lenzi doing these dives?’ But it all pays off,” he said. “I don’t dive to be second. I want to win.”

Whether or not Lenzi survives the Olympic trials, he will urge U.S. Diving and the U.S. Olympic Committee to address the post-Olympic blues with the ‘96 team. He said the more he spreads his story, the more he hears that other Olympians suffered similar bouts of depression.

“You have this one lofty goal, and it consumes your life, and then when you’ve achieved it, you find yourself with no direction, and a medal that just sits in your sock drawer,” Lenzi said.

“Athletes who haven’t been to the Olympics before need some guidance, so it won’t be such a shock when it’s over. The USOC could help save a whole lot of heartache, and I want to help so that nobody has to get as low as I did.”