The dizziness arrived with one simple dive. Mary Ellen Clark wasn't even working off the 10-meter platform, from which she had earned her 1992 Olympic bronze medal, twisting and turning, flipping and falling 33 feet to hit the chlorinated water as a 118-pound, 30-mph bullet. No, she was on the one-meter springboard, no different from the hey-ma diving board at the local Holiday Inn. And she was just warming up, for goodness' sake.
One moment she was following her familiar routine, bouncing into the air, going into a basic 2½ tuck. The next moment she was hitting the water, maybe a little bit off-kilter, maybe not, but certainly in a different medical condition. Dizzy.
"January 18," the 32-year-old Clark says, reading from a brown leather day planner in which she has kept notes on all of this. "I came out of the water and told my coach I didn't feel right. I said that I should take a break for a while."
The break has lasted for the better part of six months. One word, vertigo, underlined twice at the head of the next planner page, describes the problem. The best female diver in the country cannot dive because she's dizzy.
Her frustrations are written in her own tidy hand. How does she make the spinning stop? She is fine in everyday life, driving around Fort Lauderdale, where she lives, in her white Celica convertible, preaching the merits of Interior Design Nutritionals and Speedo swimwear. She can run. She can lift weights. She can do all the average things that average people do. It is only when she returns to the board or even to the training harness and does any dive more complicated than a single somersault that the dizziness returns. She comes out of the water feeling as if she were leaving Space Mountain.
How does she make the spinning stop? Atlanta 1996 is drawing closer and closer. The clock is ticking.
"January 24," she reads. "I waited five days and said, 'I've got to do something.' I went to Dr. Dasher, an ear, nose and throat physician. He said I had a minor ear infection. He prescribed an antidizzy drug called meclizine. I was afraid to take it because I thought it might be a banned substance. I also went to Dr. Wolf, a neurologist. He prescribed Cawthorne exercises, which involved moving your head rapidly, bending over, doing a number of things to bombard the system with stimuli. I did these religiously."
She is a compact woman with a blonde business haircut and an excited way of talking. Tenacity is one of her strengths. Fearlessness too. Her coach, Ron O'Brien, the coach of Greg Louganis, says that all topflight divers, those who reach his program at the International Swimming Hall of Fame pool in Fort Lauderdale, are people who are not afraid to jump out of planes. The platform divers are simply the ones who don't need parachutes. The impact of diving from the tower is so substantial that most platform divers practice no more than 30 dives in a day and then stay away from the platform for two days to let their bodies heal. Joints become stiff. Shoulders separate. This is not a sport for the timid.
"January 30," Clark says. "I had an EKG to rule out head and brain things. That came back fine. I had hot air blown into my ears. I became dizzier when the air was blown into my right ear. That's when I heard the term 'benign paroxysmal positional vertigo.' I also did this vision thing, following a red dot, to see which ear was affected. This also indicated the right."
She came to the platform late. That is her story. She always had been a diver, part of a diving family, the youngest of seven kids in Newtown Square, Pa. Her father, Gene, an IBM salesman, had been a college diver. There was a trampoline in the backyard for practice. Hooked by the TV coverage of American gold medalist Jenny Chandler in Montreal in 1976, Clark followed the competitive route through high school and then to Penn State on a scholarship. Her goal was to qualify for national teams, but she was always short of that until she found the platform in the summer of '84, after her junior year in college. Just fooling around, someone challenged her to try the big dive. She stood at the top for a half hour before doing a basic 2½ That was the beginning.