Wendy Lian Williams had every right to be nervous last Saturday afternoon. With one dive left in the women's platform finals of the World Diving Cup, in Indianapolis, Williams, a 21-year-old University of Miami junior, trailed the leader, Chen Xiaodan, of China, by barely five points. "All afternoon," Williams would say later, "I felt like I had an alien in my stomach going boom, boom, boom. I know a little of that is good, but too much is not good."
Williams walked to the edge of the platform and turned her back to the pool. Then she launched herself upward, spun inward 2� times and punctured the water. A peach basket could have covered the splash without getting wet. In a moment the board flashed 69.72 points, Williams's highest score of the meet.
Next came the waiting, while Chen and her teammate Xu Yanmei, the 1988 Olympic platform champion, who was in third place, 25.77 points behind Chen, made their final dives. "This is familiar," said Scott Reich, Williams's coach. Last summer in Seoul, Williams was in fourth place and Chen in third going into Chen's last dive. But Chen self-destructed, and Williams got the bronze. She had known then where she stood, but she didn't now. Williams saw Chen do an inward 3� tuck and the seven judges give her scores from 5 to 6�. "That's it," Reich told her. "You've got it."
Williams was ecstatic. "I thought he meant I'd won the silver," she said.
But as she studied the scoreboard, it slowly dawned on her that it was mathematically impossible for Xu, who had over-rotated on her third dive, to beat her. "I'm not very good at math," said Williams, "but I didn't think you could get 90 points on a back 2� pike."
You can't. Xu ripped her final dive for 8�'s and 9's, but in vain. The board showed Williams to be the winner, with 257.91 points to Chen's 251.01 and Xu's 245.07. Even on the victory stand Williams had to steal a glance at the front of her pedestal. Sure enough, it read 1.
"The Chinese are not invincible," said Williams afterward. "I really know that now. I sort of knew it before, but there was always a little doubt in the back of my mind."
The Chinese may not be invincible, but they proved in Indianapolis that they are still the best divers in the world. Not only did they win the men's, women's and combined team competitions—the U.S. was runner-up in all three—but they also won four of the six individual finals. First, Gao Min, 18, the Olympic women's three-meter springboard champion, edged teammate Yu Xiaoling, 277.23 to 275.52, in the women's one meter, a non-Olympic event—despite having had only two practice sessions on the low board in preparation for the meet. Later on Saturday, Tan Liangde, who had placed second to the now retired Greg Louganis in the three-meter springboard at both the Los Angeles and Seoul Olympics, won by finishing 4.53 points ahead of Kent Ferguson of the U.S. When, on Sunday, Gao added the three-meter springboard championship to become the meet's only double winner, and 15-year-old Xiong Ni won the men's platform, it was easy to understand Williams's doubt.
Last week's victory was Williams's first major international win in a long and sometimes rocky career. As a 16-month-old toddler she was trampolining in the backyard under the supervision of her father, Charles, who coached divers in the St. Louis area. She began diving at 3, and at 14 she moved to Mission Viejo, Calif., to work with Ron O'Brien, who also coached Louganis. That experiment had mixed results. Her diving went well—she won the '84 national three-meter springboard title—but she was homesick. "It was really tough being away from my family," she says.
After narrowly missing the 1984 Olympic team in the platform, Williams continued training and enrolled at Miami in the fall of 1985. But the intensity of competition was taking its toll. "I was really burned out," she says. "I started getting lost in the middle of my dives." One symptom of her burnout was fear on the platform. She did not dive at all in the summer of 1986, and when she resumed diving in the fall, it was from the three-meter board only. To bolster her confidence on the platform, Williams sunbathed on it at Miami. A year later, she was ready to try diving from it again.