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June 19, 2000

Diver's Degree Of Difficulty Was Outside The Pool


 June 19, 2000

The Associated Press

There was no public pool in his hometown in Puerto Rico, so Mark Ruiz began his diving career as furtively as a spy, stealing out of the house to jump from tree branches and ropes into a river. Sometimes, his mother would sneak him into hotel pools, where at least the water was clear, even if the coast was not.

"Sometimes they would turn us back," Lydia Torres said, adding that the lifeguards came to recognize her son. "He used to entertain the tourists. There was a hotel, and they had a 3-meter springboard. Mark would go up and jump -- he was 3 or 4 years old -- and the people used to watch. He wasn't into swimming, or trying to cross the pool. He only wanted to jump."

Eight years ago, Ruiz and his mother moved to Orlando, Fla., to pursue his diving career, and now, at 21, he represents the best hope for a medal by an American at the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney, Australia. The Olympic trials begin tomorrow in Federal Way, Wash., where Ruiz is favored to win the 3-meter springboard and 10-meter platform competitions. If he wins a medal in Sydney, he will dedicate it to his mother, whose uncommon sacrifice and perseverance have given personal resonance to the familiar diving term, degree of difficulty.

"My whole career is for her," Ruiz said.

It was Torres, a single woman rearing three children, who enrolled him in swimming and diving lessons, who signed him up for ballet classes after a coach suggested it would help his diving, who drove 45 minutes each way from home in Toa Alta, P.R., to the swim club in San Juan. And it was his mother who moved with Mark to Orlando in 1992, after his club pool had been shut down, who left her two older children at home and gave up her business so that her youngest son could pursue his passion.

"When our pool in Puerto Rico shut down, Mark's coach told me he'd be great in diving," Torres said, referring to the coach, Hector Vass. "He said, 'If you can move there, Lydia, take him.' Mark had been to Orlando before for a diving camp. So we decided to give it a try."

For 20 years, Torres had run her own hairstyling business in Puerto Rico. Now she was working in someone else's salon, strictly on commission. "Literally, for pennies," she said. She found an apartment, a used car. She scraped by. Jeff Shaffer, the coach at Team Orlando, charged Ruiz $75 a month for pool time instead of the standard $125. Ruiz also won a $5,000 training stipend.

At age 11, Ruiz had bought a videotape, "Learn to Dive with Greg Louganis," and he wore it out, trying to model his diving after the Olympic champion.

"He's the Michael Jordan of diving," Ruiz said. "I know I'm never going to be as good as Greg. He was so graceful in the air. I'm more mechanical. He made it look so easy. But I'll be the best I can to put U.S. diving back on top."

Louganis and Ruiz spoke recently, and Louganis told Ruiz to call him when he made the Olympic team. Not if, but when. Louganis told him to avoid outside distractions, and not to be satisfied with the mediocre. Ruiz is as emotional as a wide receiver after a touchdown, whooping, pumping his fists. In the past, the emotion sometimes hurt him. One bad dive could ruin an entire meet. Now, he has learned to let the frustration cascade off him like water.

When he hits a dive correctly, and there is hardly a splash upon his entry, he remembers why he loved diving as a young boy. The water feels as soft and smooth as silk. When he misses a dive, he feels the pressure in the palm of his hands. He is, he admits, also afraid of heights. It is an occupational hazard for a diver who must jump from a 10-meter platform that is the height of a three-story building. "If I stop diving for a while, when I come back, I get really nervous," Ruiz said.

The Americans mustered only two bronze medals in diving at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Ruiz is the best American hope to challenge the Chinese and the Russians in Sydney. His mother plans to be there. She has opened her own hair salon and remarried, finding personal and financial fulfillment as her son has found athletic gratification.

"It has all turned out for the better," Torres said. "Every little sacrifice was well worth it. But I never expected he would go this far, not when he was young. I took him to the pool because he had so much energy, he was hard to control. I had to put him into something. I was just trying to curb his wildness."

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