The Parque Naciones Unidas pool complex in Caracas had seen five days of raucous, emotion-filled swimming and diving in Pan American Games history, days of tears, jeers, rainstorms, records and confusion. But as the men's platform diving final moved toward its climax Sunday afternoon—old rivals Greg Louganis and Bruce Kimball trading tightly spun front 3½s and breathtaking reverse cut-throughs against a background of Venezuelan hills speckled with shanties—the 3,500 spectators grew quiet. Having seen Louganis' spectacular springboard performance on Thursday, they now marveled at his graceful acrobatics off the 10-meter tower. They savored his splash-free entries. And they understood why, at age 23, with three world and 24 American championships behind him, he is considered the greatest diver of all time.
They also saw that he had not broken free of Kimball, 20, a University of Michigan sophomore and a five-time national platform champion. After leading Louganis through four of the first nine rounds, Kimball trailed now—but by only 16.92 points. "Here we go again," said Kimball's father and coach, Dick, who'd seen this battle before. The two divers have competed against each other since childhood and have driven each other to such a high level of performance that judges have had to raise their standards. "They've seen us do the best dives we could ever possibly do," says Louganis. "Now they want something more."
Louganis' 10th and final effort would be a reverse 3½ tuck, whose 3.4 degree of difficulty is the highest of any platform dive. It is a parlous dive: In July, Sergei Shalibashvili of the U.S.S.R. hit his head on the concrete platform while attempting one at the World University Games in Edmonton. He fractured his skull and died a week later. "It was a technical error on the Soviet's part," Louganis says now. "Just a freak accident." But for a while it gnawed at him. "I felt guilty...[for] pushing people to do these dives," he says. Such is Louganis' talent that he has taken his sport far beyond its previous limits, perfecting dives that others cannot even try safely.
Here, in the final round, Louganis threw a 3½ like none other in history. Launching himself far out from the tower, he whirled through his backward somersaults while plunging toward the pool at 10, then 20, then 30 miles per hour. He straightened, then pierced the water like a spear. With five 9.0s, a 10.0 and an 8.0 from the judges, Louganis earned 91.80 points—one of the highest totals ever recorded for a single dive. Even though Kimball followed with four 10.0s, two 9.5s and one 9.0 on his last dive, a back 2½ pike, he fell 23.46 points short of Louganis' winning total of 677.58. But Louganis was not gloating. "I think Bruce is going to start doing inward 3½s and back 3½s pretty soon," he said. "That will give him a higher degree of difficulty. Then let's see how it goes."
Louganis' platform victory climaxed a succession of excellent showings by U.S. divers. On Thursday Louganis so dominated the men's three-meter springboard competition that he could have skipped the last of his 11 dives and still defeated runner-up Abel Ramirez of Cuba by more than nine points. As it was, Louganis finished with 724.02 points to win by more than 90. "On springboard I'm mostly competing against myself," he acknowledged afterward, adding that his goal in the event now is to score 800 points. "That's a lot to take on, but I feel every dive I do is potentially worth all 10.0s." Louganis already has earned as many as 18 10.0s and 752.67 points in a single springboard competition. No other diver in history has received more than seven 10.0s or broken 700 points. "People used to talk about the greatness of [Italy's] Klaus Dibiasi," says Canadian Coach Elizabeth Jack. "Greg has moved far beyond that."
Another of the sport's legends was Pat McCormick, who won four Olympic and three Pan Am diving titles off springboard and tower in the 1950s. "She showed me her gold medals when I was a little girl," recalled her 23-year-old daughter, Kelly, last week. "I made a bet with her that someday I'd make an Olympic team and win." Kelly pursued gymnastics for eight years, but at 15 she turned to diving. On Wednesday she put a little pressure on mom, winning the women's springboard title after a close battle with Wendy Wyland of Mission Viejo, Calif. and Sylvie Bernier of Canada. The Olympics are but a step away. "The bet's for a Porsche and either an ocelot or a cheetah," said a grinning Kelly, a 5'4", 120-pound Ohio State junior considered, by her friends, to possess a bit of a wild streak.
Her rivals weren't so elated. So trying was the competition that afterward Wyland was almost in tears, Canada's Debbie Fuller, the sixth-place finisher, was actually crying on McCormick's shoulder, and world springboard champion Megan Neyer of the University of Florida—who hadn't even taken part, having failed to make the U.S. team in the event—was sitting on a poolside bench sobbing, being consoled by her close friend Louganis. "This makes 12 times I've finished second this year," groaned the 17-year-old Wyland, who won the women's world platform championship last summer in Guayaquil, Ecuador.
"I'm getting frustrated," said Neyer, who remains a favorite for next year's Olympics. "I wanted to be out there so badly...it was hard to watch." In the women's platform finals on Saturday, Wyland put an end to her frustration with an impressive victory, while Neyer, away from her specialty, came in fourth. And thus, for only the third time in history, the U.S. swept all four Pan Am diving titles.
The U.S. swimmers, fresh off their best outdoor nationals in three years, came to Caracas confident in themselves but, like many others, wary about the games. "We weren't sure if we'd even find water in the pool," said breaststroke world-record holder Steve Lundquist. Having heard rumors all summer of unfinished facilities and inept organization, swimmers and other athletes arrived to find workmen still hammering away in the Pan Am Village, no time schedules set up for events and round-the-clock traffic jams. With the village located about 20 miles outside Caracas, the U.S. team had to take rooms in a downtown hotel so its swimmers could rest properly the day before competing. "Otherwise," said U.S. Head Coach Don Gambril, "our kids would be spending eight or 10 hours a day just riding back and forth between the village and the meet." By far the fastest lanes in town were those in the newly built pool, which not only held water but so impressed the Americans that, in the words of butterfly world-record holder Mary T. Meagher, "When we saw it, we stood there with our mouths hanging open."
Other sights evoked gaping stares of a different sort. CBS-TV staffers saw an improperly bolted diving board fall off just days before the games opened. Driving rainstorms knocked down part of a pool light, chilled and stiffened swimmers and extinguished the Pan Am's not-so-eternal flame. For U.S. victory ceremonies, the swim organizers played a coarsely chopped-off version of The Star Spangled Banner and brought out American flags with stars on only one side. On Tuesday night, to the utter bewilderment of onlookers, a maintenance worker diligently bailed water out of the pool and tossed it onto the deck with a bucket, while several of his colleagues kept moving a line of unused wooden desks back and forth in front of the U.S. swimmers. "We will never lose a war to these people," said former UCLA star Bill Barrett, shaking his head.