To the home viewing public, divers are like exotic flowers that bloom every four years during the Olympics, then wilt out of sight and out of mind until the next Games. Of course, they don't actually shrivel up, as last week's events indicated. First came a U.S.- U.S.S.R. dual meet at the Cleveland State University Natatorium and two days later the 13-nation Hall of Fame International Diving Meet in Fort Lauderdale. When the water had stilled, the U.S. divers had every reason to believe that 1980 will be another banner year.
The U.S. performance in Cleveland reversed last year's defeat in Leningrad, where the Soviets won easily, 52-36. This time the Americans won 58-30, and they did so by sweeping the first three places in both the men's three-meter springboard and 10-meter platform events. The U.S. team also had 18-year-old Jenni Chandler of Lincoln, Ala., the Montreal Olympic springboard gold medalist, who has the endearing Southern habit of turning a straightforward declarative sentence into a question. For instance, she might say, "I dived off that three-meter springboard until there wasn't a Soviet within 38 points of me?" And that is exactly what she did.
Did the Soviets send their best divers to last week's first big international meets of the year? Well, da and nyet. Platform diver Elena Vaytsekhovskaia was home sick, and Sergei Nemtsanov, their men's tower ace, hasn't been allowed out of the U.S.S.R. since he tried to defect in Montreal two years ago. But then in 1977, the U.S. team went to Leningrad without Chandler and Phil Boggs, also a gold medalist on the springboard in '76, and without the silver medalist in the platform, Greg Louganis. All three-were on hand last week, and they were instrumental in the Soviets' undoing.
Boggs, who is 28 and a second-year law student at the University of Michigan, finished 68.65 points ahead of his nearest Soviet rival in the springboard. He also dived surprisingly well off the platform, finishing second to 22-year-old Kent Vosler of Ohio State. Louganis, the 18-year-old high school prodigy from Mission Viejo, Calif., botched one of his required dives and finished third.
When Louganis won his silver medal at Montreal, he was all but canonized as the heir to three-time gold medalist Klaus Dibiasi of Italy, who was soon to retire. It was curious talk in a way because Louganis had not yet won a major national title, and, indeed, did not do so until three weeks ago when he won both the one-meter springboard and the platform events at the AAU Indoor Nationals.
The thing people don't realize is that one mistake can knock you right out of the competition," Vosler said in Cleveland. "And there are at least 20 guys in the world waiting to take you if you do falter. Greg is a great diver, but it's too easy to say that just because Dibiasi retired, Greg is the new king."
If not the new king, then Louganis must be considered first among princes of the high tower. "Greg is the most elegant diver we have," says Ron O'Brien, the 1976 U.S. Olympic coach. "He's the greatest natural talent I've ever seen."
"Greg has everything," says Dr. Sammy Lee, Louganis' coach and two-time Olympic gold medalist on the tower. "He is so space-oriented he never gets lost in midair, and he feels the dive all the way through. Even if he should miss on his takeoff he can usually correct in midair."
Evidently the only thing that has prevented Louganis from fulfilling his considerable promise is a tendency to lose his concentration at crucial moments. This is a result of an awareness that winning doesn't have to be the only reason for diving. "I guess I don't have too much confidence in myself," Louganis says. "I never expect to win anything. That way, when I don't win, I still feel I haven't really lost anything, and when I do win, it's just a bonus."
When Louganis is concentrating, he is capable of a spellbindingly poetic kind of skywriting, and when he enters the water, he seems to burrow a hole through which he vanishes. This is called a "rip" entry because of the sound it makes, like a shirt being torn. When it is executed to perfection, it creates no splash whatever—just bubbles, as if the water were boiling.