At an outdoor diving pool in The Woodlands, Texas last Saturday afternoon, Dick Kimball checked his scoring sheet, smiled and looked up at the 10-meter tower, where America's two best male divers were standing. "Point six six!" he called out, adding a brief whoop of jubilation. With one round of dives left in the platform finals of the III World Diving Cup, Kimball's son Bruce, a four-time national champion, led three-time world champion Greg Louganis by just that much—.66 of a point—372.87 to 372.21. The elder Kimball, a U.S. team coach, turned to some friends at poolside. "Isn't this great?" he asked.
Up on the tower, Louganis and Bruce Kimball glanced at each other and chuckled nervously. "We were saying, 'Isn't this great?' " said Kimball later. "We were enjoying ourselves." Kimball, a University of Michigan freshman, had clearly outperformed his longtime best friend and rival through the first five rounds, scoring 9.0s and 9.5s to Louganis' 8.0s and 8.5s. Schooled to technical perfection by his father, Kimball was entering the water with no more splash than a pebble. But Louganis, a senior at UC-Irvine, was executing dives he'd never tried in international competition and their high degrees of difficulty were helping his score. As he prepared for his sixth and final dive, Louganis grinned at Kimball. "Let's tie," he said.
Rarely had a diving competition been so tight, but, then, rarely had there been a meet quite like this World Cup. The four-day, 18-nation event had included two days of team competition—the People's Republic of China edging the U.S. for first place, 4,404.96-4,397.97, with strong women's performances—followed by two days of single-elimination, one-on-one individual diving. "It's like a tennis tournament. You knock off one guy, then another, then another, until you're in the finals," said women's world platform champion Wendy Wyland of Mission Viejo, Calif. "It's fun."
While the matches, which lasted about 20 minutes each, were highly entertaining and even drew support as a possible format for future Olympics, they didn't work to the advantage of divers from either the U.S. or the Soviet Union, the top two finishers, respectively, at last summer's world championships in Guayaquil, Ecuador. Three of the six American divers didn't get past the quarterfinals, and a fourth, Wyland, lost in the semis of both platform and three-meter springboard. That left Louganis and Kimball. The U.S. performance was further hurt by the absence of women's world springboard champion Megan Neyer of the University of Florida, who was too exhausted to come to the meet after her long collegiate season. The Soviets, meanwhile, finished a distant third in the team race and—talk about tough times—by the morning of the second day of individual competition had posted a sign announcing a liquidation sale—50% off—on all their remaining cans of caviar. One U.S.S.R. diver did reach the finals, a spectacular 14-year-old named Alla Lobankina, whose platform dives were as difficult as Louganis'. "She's doing the dives of the future," said a U.S. coach, Mike Brown. "I guess that means the future is now."
In the women's platform finals, Lobankina missed several high-risk dives and lost to 18-year-old Zhou Ji Hong, one of eight Chinese at the World Cup. Two others, Li Yihua and Peng Yuanchun, met in the women's springboard finals, with Li winning narrowly. "We are very happy just to be here," said team interpreter Xu Fang, aware that his nation's government recently canceled virtually all sports-related trips to the U.S. in response to the defection to America of Chinese tennis star Hu Na. This visit was presumably allowed because the event was a world championship.
The Chinese team almost immediately won the affection of local fans with its goodwill, sportsmanship and curious habits. After each dive the Chinese athlete would bow to the pool in acknowledgment of the crowd's applause, and all week China's women divers hobbled around the pool deck in high-heeled plastic sandals. Chinese coaches, meanwhile, were studying warmup dives with binoculars from as little as 15 feet away. For security reasons, the team had been billeted at the Chinese consulate in downtown Houston, a 45-minute drive to the south. "Oh, more than 45 minutes in the rush hour," said Xu, still numbed by a confrontation with Houston's Great Wall of Traffic.
The Chinese did their best to help out other nations' divers, too, most notably Kimball, who had severely sprained his right ankle while stepping off a curb in Ann Arbor four days before the meet. The ankle had swelled to twice its normal size by Tuesday, the day before the meet began, and Kimball thought of withdrawing. But a Chinese team trainer came to Kimball's aid. "First, he massaged my leg and tried to move some of the swelling out," Kimball said. "Then he gave me a strip of cotton and told me to soak it in the hottest water I could stand. I put that on the joint space of the ankle and wrapped it in an Ace bandage." The treatment worked so well that Kimball says he was "overwhelmed." Anyway, he could walk.
As the top seed in the platform finals, Louganis, who had earlier defeated Niki Stajkovic of Austria 452.31-379.44 for the men's springboard title, would go before Kimball on the last dive. "Greg always saves the dive with the highest degree of difficulty for last," says Ron O'Brien, Louganis' coach from Mission Viejo. "That way if he needs to score a ton of points, there's at least a possibility." In this case Louganis had saved a reverse 3½ tuck, whose whopping 3.4 degree of difficulty is the highest of any platform dive. He spun through it gracefully enough to earn 85.68 points.
Life has not been easy on Louganis for some time now. He has spent much of the last two years fighting off shoulder ailments. Though he enjoys his drama studies at Irvine, he has had run-ins with the school's athletic department, and an administrative blunder this winter in effect cost him his last year of NCAA eligibility. In addition, a February appendectomy cost him three weeks of training, and a virus he contracted at last month's U.S. Indoor Nationals in Indianapolis caused him to throw up between dives of that meet's three-meter springboard finals—which, of course, he won anyway. And Louganis didn't win the 1982 Sullivan Award as America's top amateur athlete, even though he'd been nominated for it by track and field star Carl Lewis, the 1981 Sullivan recipient, and his long-jumping sister, Carol. "I think Carol wrote me a fan letter way back around 1976," says Louganis. "I've gotten to be good friends with both of them." Indeed, Carol, a University of Houston sophomore and former age-group diver, drove up for Saturday's finals.
When Kimball stepped up for his final dive, a back 2½ pike, he knew he'd have to hit it perfectly, because the dive's degree of difficulty is a mere 2.9. But Kimball is used to long odds: In July 1981 he nearly drowned while trying to swim 50 meters underwater, and three months later he was in an auto accident, breaking his jaw in six places, crushing his right cheekbone, fracturing his skull, rupturing his spleen, lacerating his liver, breaking his left fibula and tearing ligaments in his left knee. "He wanted to get back to diving so bad he tried to escape from the hospital after a few weeks," says his father. "He just couldn't figure out how to get the catheter out."
Kimball was brilliant in getting his 2½ pike off, but despite one 10.0 and three 9.5s, his dive earned only 80.91 points. His total of 453.78 left him 4.11 shy of Louganis' 457.89. Said Louganis, embracing Kimball, "Way to go. Oh, man! Whew!"
Clearly, few athletes in the world belong in a class with Louganis. "Greg is the most physically gifted person I've ever seen come into the sport of diving," says former Olympic and world springboard champion Phil Boggs. "He's the consummate diver. He has everything—power, grace, a catlike awareness and, most important, the ability to put it all together in competition." Consider Louganis' accomplishments: At 23, he has already won more U.S. national diving titles (22) than any man in history, and before long he will pass Cynthia Potter's American record of 28. At last summer's world championships, he won titles in both the platform and springboard, an unprecedented feat for a man in either Olympic or world championship competition. There he also earned the highest score ever for a single springboard dive—92.07 for a front 3½ pike—and became only the second person in history to record seven 10.0s on a dive, doing so on an inward 2½ pike. Says Dick Kimball, "Greg is probably the greatest diver ever, springboard or platform."
Still, O'Brien says Louganis is "two or three years away from reaching his peak. When he gets there, he should be able to maintain that level for several years more. That is, if he wants to." Between now and then, however, Louganis and Kimball will make sure the 10-meter platform is a U.S. tower of power.
Louganis displays the power off the tower that got him past Kimball by 4.11 points.
Li's victory began China's sweep of women's events.