Dmitri Sautin of Russia admits that he isn't the world's most graceful diver. To the contrary, he insists, his dives are filled with technical flaws; he's a creaky old man who can't point his toes or straighten his knees to save his babushka. Yet at 26 Sautin has become the most accomplished male diver since Greg Louganis despite a style that his first coach, Sam Slobounov, called robotic. The son of an Aeroflot factory worker, Sautin is more battler than artist. He wins not because of textbook technique but because he jumps higher and twists faster than his rivals, fighting his way into position sooner for clean entries. He claimed the Olympic platform title in Atlanta, took the platform and three-meter springboard crowns at the 1998 worlds and won three gold medals at the European championships in Helsinki in July. He'll try for four golds—in springboard, platform and both synchronized events—at the Sydney Games.
Sautin survived a sidewalk stabbing after a drunken celebration of his first European title nine years ago in Voronezh, Russia, and his body is forever mending, wrists and back battered from his aggressive diving. He spent much of the summer before his victories in Helsinki confined to bed, reading and fretting. "It is very hard to recover," he says. "You lose the feel of your body, the air and the springboard very quickly. You also gain weight. Your legs become heavy. The height of your springboard dives becomes 1 to 1� meters less. And you start feeling you have coordination problems."
Listen long enough and you can almost hear Felix Unger honking, yet Sautin's rivals have come to see his whines as a characteristic bit of gamesmanship. Asked this summer about his Sydney prospects, answered, "I feel my age. Every morning when I get up, I feel pain all over my body."
He doesn't sound like a man ready to make a big splash—and that's exactly the idea.