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Ruiz Splashes Into Sydney

by Juliet Macur

September 7, 2000
Copyright © 2000 THE ORLANDO SENTINEL. All Rights Reserved.

PHOTO: On board and happy. Mark Ruiz contemplates a dive during practice in Orlando. He moved to Orlando from Puerto Rico when he was 12 years old. (Gary Bogdon/The Orlando Sentinel)

SYDNEY, Australia -- There wasn`t much for Mark Ruiz to do during his 14-hour plane flight from Los Angeles to Sydney.

He slept. He ate. Then he slept some more.

His trip to the Summer Olympics was entirely uneventful -- that is, until he decided to watch a movie. He put on his headphones, looked up and was shocked.

"I saw the screen and there I was! NBC or something was doing a story about me!" said Ruiz, an Orlando resident who is the United States` best hope for Olympic gold in diving. "It was kind of embarrassing because everyone kept coming up to me afterward saying, `Hey, aren`t you the guy they just did the story on?`

"It was embarrassing, but cool at the same time."

He walked off the plane at 7:40 a.m. today (Australia is 15 hours ahead of Orlando) looking very American. He was dressed in full Olympic gear, wearing a USA sweatsuit, with a USA polo shirt and a huge USA duffel bag filled with free gifts he received from the U.S. Olympic Committee. As soon as he went through customs, he and all his gear were whisked through security and onto a bus. He ended his morning at the Olympic Village, where he will stay in a townhouse with the diving team.

Ruiz, 21, will compete in the 3-meter springboard, the 10-meter platform and the 10-meter synchronized-diving events. He was the Olympic Trials champion in the 3- and 10-meter events, the first American since Greg Louganis in 1988 to double up.

Now Ruiz is hoping for much more.

"When I got off the bus and saw all the workers and athletes here [for the Olympics], it all started to sink in," said Ruiz, who moved from Puerto Rico to Orlando when he was 12. "I`m finally here. This is what I`ve been training my whole life for. This is the time for me to come home with gold medals for our country and for Orlando. I really think I can do it."

Ruiz said he has been diving better since the Olympic Trials in June, where he came from behind to win the 3-meter in dramatic fashion, then crushed his competition on the 10-meter. Now he has several more weeks to get even better.

Ruiz`s first competition isn`t until Sept. 23, the day of the finals for the 10-meter synchronized-diving competition, so he and his partner, Fort Lauderdale`s David Pichler, have time to relax and train without distraction.

Ruiz and the rest of the U.S. team headed to the Olympic pool several hours after they arrived in town, but their workout was easy. Friday, on the other hand, is another story.

"We`ve worked really hard for the last five years, and we`ll continue to work really hard," said Jay Lerew, the U.S. national team coach and Ruiz`s personal coach in Orlando. "But all we`ve really got to do is tune things up and let it go. I keep telling Mark, `Relax. You know you can do well.`

"He`s ready. I`m pretty sure we can see gold in all three events."

Ruiz, known for pumping his fists and celebrating after a good dive, is just as confident. It`s no surprise. He is always ready to have fun, more so now that the stresses of the trials and pre-Olympic exhibitions are over.

After the trials, Ruiz went to training camp with the U.S. team, then traveled throughout the United States on a diving tour for two weeks. It was hard work, with 5 a.m. wake-up calls, long flights and even longer days. So, with all that behind him, Ruiz is looking forward to training and enjoying his first Olympic experience. He is looking forward to winning, too.

Ruiz is one of the favorites to medal in synchronized diving and on both individual boards. His biggest competition will come from the Chinese and Russian divers. He is ready for the challenge -- but not just yet because jet lag has made him groggy. Ruiz said he felt "horrible" overall after spending 14 hours in a small coach seat, but he was upbeat, as usual, when arriving in Sydney.

"This is a trip of a lifetime, so I`ve got to enjoy every second of it," Ruiz said. "I really want to have fun and meet other athletes, but I want to train hard, too. I really think we could win gold in that synchro event, so we`ve got to be ready for it."

His mother, Lydia Torres, will be poolside when her son goes for a medal. She will arrive in Sydney on Sept. 22. She`ll be joined by her husband, Armando Velez, who is Ruiz`s stepfather, and by Ruiz`s girlfriend, Nicole Bolt, and her parents. Bolt is a freshman at the University of Florida, where she is on a diving scholarship. She and Ruiz met as students at Dr. Phillips High School.

"We had a lot of family and friends that wanted to come, but it`s so far and so expensive to come here, they couldn`t make the trip," Torres said. "I`m just glad we could have this many people go to see Mark dive.

"Personally, I wouldn`t miss this for the world. This is the moment we`ve both been waiting for."

Torres moved to Orlando nine years ago from Toa Alta, Puerto Rico, where she left behind her family and a hair salon she owned. She transplanted herself in Central Florida to give her son a better place to train. Now, it`s all paying off. Her son is a contender for an Olympic gold medal. He is featured on cereal boxes and in magazines. He is the focus of stories shown on airplane movie screens.

"I never, ever thought this could happen," said Torres, who is in the process of buying a hair salon in Orlando. "This is really a dream come true, it really is."

Ruiz knew his Olympic dream was real when he stepped onto Australian soil. Then, when he walked through the gates of the Olympic Village, he was overwhelmed. He has been to Australia three times in the past two years for diving competitions, but he said his fourth trip feels different.

This time means much, much more. It means everything.

"I feel so good about this trip, I can`t even explain it," Ruiz said. "I`ve never been so thrilled or so excited about anything. I just can`t wait for that first event.

"I can`t wait to win a gold medal and make my country proud of me."

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