He was upside down, 33 feet in the air, fingers clenched on the edge of the platform and toes pointed straight up at the sky. The crowd below was awaiting another breathtaking performance from the best daredevil diver in the United States, but Scott Donie had other images racing through his mind. It was the sixth of his 10 scheduled dives at the 1993 Olympic Festival in San Antonio, and Donie, the '92 Olympic silver medalist, was thinking about screwing up, about crashing into the water at 30 mph and getting hurt. He was losing his nerve right there on the 10-meter platform.
As the blood rushed to his head and his arms began to quiver, Donie held his handstand position for 15 seconds...20...25. Judy Donie, sitting nervously below, thought her son was ailing; perhaps a nagging wrist injury had flared up and left him immobile. The rest of the crowd didn't know what to think. How long could he stay up there? A typical platform diver holds the position for three or four seconds. Donie was up there for 30...then 35. He was in the lead, but suddenly he was frozen in place, like a kitten trapped up a tree.
"The easiest thing for me to do was just do my dive and not tell anyone what was wrong," says Donie, 27, who last week finished first in the springboard at the Olympic trials in Indianapolis. "Divers are proud people. You don't just stop in the middle of a meet. You don't just walk off the platform."
But that's just what Donie did. He felt he had no choice. His heart and his head were no longer in the game. He says he thought about doing "a cannonball or something crazy" until he realized he didn't belong on a platform 33 feet in the air. "I had gotten so down, so messed up mentally, that it just wasn't fun for me anymore," says Donie. "I was up there, looking down and thinking, 'What am I doing?' I could've killed myself. It just got to the point where I said, 'Forget this. It's over.' "
For Donie there was only one way to come back from the brink. Although diving had been his life since he was 10, he now would have to learn to live without it. He took six months off, and when he made his return, it was on the springboard, which is only 10 feet above the water. He found that height far less daunting, and by last weekend the country's best male platform diver in 1992 had become its No. 1 springboard competitor for '96.
The other male springboarder to qualify for Atlanta was Mark Lenzi, the 1992 gold medalist in the event, who took nearly two years off after the Barcelona Games because of burnout. Lenzi, 27, was fourth and all but out of contention going into the finals last Friday until he turned in a masterly performance, nailing a reverse 3½ somersault tuck in the final round that earned 101.85 points, equaling the second-highest score ever achieved on a single dive.
Inspirational comebacks were also in vogue on the women's team, where Mary Ellen Clark, recovering from vertigo, won the platform. The only less-than-uplifting moment came after the competition had ended Sunday, when one of the men's platform qualifiers, David Pichler, launched into a tirade against his former coach. Ron O'Brien, who is now one of the U.S. team coaches. Pichler accused O'Brien of making his life "sheer hell" since he left O'Brien's tutelage last fall; O'Brien denied the accusation but said that the two no longer speak.
None of those sidelights could overshadow the story of Donie's long, hard journey to Atlanta. "San Antonio was actually the beginning of my turnaround," says Donie, who began suffering from depression after returning from Barcelona and discovering how little an Olympic medal had changed his life. There were no big endorsement deals awaiting him, no invitations from Regis and Kathie Lee. He could still walk down the aisle at the grocery store back home in Miami without being asked for an autograph. Didn't these people realize what he had just done? His entire life had been geared toward one glorious moment in the summer of '92, and now, a few weeks later, his medal didn't seem to matter. Instead of the marching bands and victory parades that Donie had expected would greet him, there were only pats on the back from other divers and coaches. The post-Olympic depression that hits many athletes in the lower-profile sports came down especially hard on Donie.
"When I was 10 years old, I thought I would be rich and famous because of the Olympics," says Donie. "I would look at Bruce Jenner, and I'd think, That's me. But I realized after Barcelona that there were something like 100 [U.S.] medalists, and there can only be so many heroes. There are a million great stories, and there's just not enough room for all of them."
Donie can be sure that there will be room for his story this time. In the last four years his life has taken enough emotional twists and turns to fill a miniseries. When he wasn't drinking in Miami nightclubs, he was usually sitting home alone feeling sorry for himself. He grew a goatee, gained 30 pounds and had his navel pierced. A diver? In San Antonio he looked more like a Deadhead.