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Vexed by Vertigo
Leigh Montville
August 07, 1995
U.S. Olympic platform diver Mary Ellen Clark has been laid low by dizziness
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August 07, 1995

Vexed By Vertigo

U.S. Olympic platform diver Mary Ellen Clark has been laid low by dizziness

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"February 7, something like that," Clark reads. "There was an article in The Miami Herald about vertigo. They said there was a Dizziness and Balance Center at the University of Miami. I said, 'There's a place for people like me?' The article also said the Mayo Clinic was where the most vertigo research was done. I called and asked for the name of a person in the Lauderdale area who had taken the Mayo course. They gave me Dr. Susan Herdman. She had a serious waiting list, but I started pleading. I said I had a dilemma, that I was a diver and the Pan Am Games were coming up and I had to find out if I could go and...there was a cancellation. She introduced me to the Canalith Repositioning Procedure."

Success off the platform kept Clark in diving after college. She went to Ohio State in 1987 to earn a master's degree in physical education and continue training. She made the national team. The first appearance of her dizziness came in '88 when she returned to Columbus from a Southern Cross event in Australia. She was doing a normal backward 2½ from the three-meter springboard. She landed and was dizzy. The dizziness continued, but she also continued. She doesn't know exactly how. She had always closed her eyes when she hit the water because she wore contact lenses, but now she would become so disoriented that sometimes she would swim toward the bottom of the pool rather than to the top. She asked her friends to watch her, to pull her out when she went the wrong way.

"The Canalith Repositioning Procedure involves lying on your side on a table and turning your head while it hangs over the end at a 45-degree angle," Clark says. "Then the procedure is repeated on the other side. For the next 48 hours you wear a surgical collar so you can't move your head. You have to sleep sitting up. Then for the next five days you sleep on your unaffected side. The theory is that there are crystals attached to the hairlike structures in the inner ear. Something you do, some movement, can knock the crystals off the hairs. When you spin and then stop, the crystals keep moving. The hope is to reattach them. I have done the Canalith Repositioning Procedure six times now. People see me in the collar and ask if I was in a car accident."

In 1988 the dizziness stopped after five months. Simply went away. Clark moved to Florida to work with O'Brien. He reworked her list of eight dives, making her learn four new ones. In '91, disappointed by a 10th-place finish at the Pan Ams in Havana, she considered quitting. Was it worth it to work so hard for another year? "You've been doing this for 22 years," O'Brien told her. "It's worth it just to see if it was worth it."

As she stood on the platform for her final dive at the 1992 Olympic trials in Indianapolis, she looked at the spot on the wall where the names of the two qualifiers for Barcelona would be painted. She was leading for the final spot by only one point. The final dive meant everything. She envisioned her name on the wall. She dived. She made the team.

"March," she says. "Now some stories about my problem had been written. I got a lot of calls. A woman suggested I take ginkgo biloba, from the oldest tree on the planet. I took it. I went to see Paula Allia, a therapist. I had neck X-rays taken. They were negative. I had a hearing test from a Dr. Attarian. A Dr. Hanft prescribed Hismanal. I took it. It made me more dizzy. It made me sick. I stopped taking it. I took a test in a rotating chair! The chair was inside a thing like an igloo. Complete darkness. The chair started rotating in one direction for a while and then stopped abruptly. I felt like I still was moving. Then we did the other direction. Same thing. They said, 'Mary Ellen, we're going to go a little faster.' That thing flew. I tested fine on the rotating chair. Normal."

The platform diving in Barcelona began on the first real day of competition. O'Brien suggested Clark skip the opening ceremonies the night before because she would have to get up at six in the morning. She said she had come too far to skip any part of the Olympics. She was the only platform diver to go to the opening ceremonies. Four days before the competition her father had gone through heart surgery, so half her family was home in Pennsylvania with him and half was with her. All kinds of emotions were floating inside her. She wasn't expected to do much; the Chinese and the Russians were the heavy favorites. She marched in the opening ceremonies. She slept from two to six. She finished the first of the two days of competition in second place. O'Brien jokingly suggested that she go for an eight-mile walk with him that night to continue this new training procedure she had developed for the finals.

"I went to acupuncture," she says of the cures she has sought since January. "I went first to Dr. Lee, who stuck needles in my ear, and then to Dr. Nevel, who stuck needles in my lower back. I still go to him. I took more homeopathic remedies. I have a list: rhubarb, dragon bone, oyster shell, cinnamon twigs, ginseng, ginger and a lot of Chinese herbs I can't name. I still take them, eight pills, four times a day, in addition to my vitamins. A mother of a student of my friend Julie Bell, who's a high school teacher, suggested niacin. I took that. I went to the Upledger Institute of CranioSacral Therapy in West Palm. They rubbed my back and neck to 'loosen the fascia.' I only went once. Someone suggested I call a man named Pete Egoscue in California. He works with Jack Nicklaus. I talked to him for a half hour. He asked me to do certain things, like stand against a wall. I did them. The last thing he asked was that I come see him in San Diego. I said I didn't have the money for that. I did buy his book. I took meclizine after all, on the instruction of Dr. Vince Wroblewski. It made me exhausted. I told him I won't be dizzy because I won't be awake. I took Tegretol, an antiseizure medicine. I took everything."

On the seventh of her eight dives on the second day at Barcelona, Clark was still second. She let herself think about what that meant, that she would receive a medal. Then she fell apart in the dive. She left the platform in second place and came out of the water in fifth. O'Brien told her she still had a chance. Her final dive, a backward 1½ with 2½ twists, felt good. She came out of the water to cheers but didn't know what they meant. O'Brien shouted to her, "Bronze!" She let the word sink in but didn't know what to say. The cameras focused on her. "Cool," she said.

"Ron thinks I should go slower, try one procedure at a time, but I'm not like that," she says. "I want to get back. I'll try anything. I'll try them all at once. I'm giving this the best shot, as far as it goes."

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