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The air was muggy. Moths fluttered in the floodlights. The
Georgia Tech Aquatic Center was silent, save for a whistling
train off in the distance. Mark Lenzi--28 years old, a son of
the South, born in Alabama--stood on the springboard, three
meters above the still water. He was about to perform his final

Seven judges fixed their eyes on him. There was not an American
among them. There would be no jingoistic favoritism in these
finals--not from the judges, anyway. The spectators, though,
were a different matter. They were independently owned and
operated. They knew that a gold medal in the men's springboard
competition was an American birthright, that the U.S. had won a
gold medal in the springboard in every Olympics since 1920
except in '72 (bronze) and '80 (boycott).

But there was Lenzi, feeling the bounce of the board, knowing
that two men from China, Xiong Ni and Yu Zhuocheng, were ahead
of him, in first and second, respectively. He knew that his
compatriot Scott Donie was having a good night but not the kind
of night that wins a gold medal.

Lenzi knows about winning gold. He won the springboard
competition at the Barcelona Games. But after his 1992 triumph,
Lenzi went into a 20-month funk. He spent his nights drinking
and his days sleeping. And then, not in one day but in little
steps, the way a child learns to walk, Lenzi decided to again
make the climb up to the board. From where he was, in bed on
weekday afternoons, hung over and overweight, his journey these
past two years was longer than the 24-year journey he made to
the winners' platform in Barcelona.

His final dive was a reverse 3 1/2 somersault in the tuck
position. The degree of difficulty was 3.5. There was not a
diver in the field of 12 who had a final dive with a higher
degree of difficulty.

He tossed down his green towel, narrowed his eyes, found some
air, went charging down the runway and into flight. It had the
makings of a beautiful dive, his little body hurtling through
the air, twisting and flipping, alive with possibility, into the
water with his short fingers stretched out, a neat entree,
flashbulbs popping, spectators standing on their feet and
cheering. And then it was over. There was nothing more to do.

He watched his scores go up: four 9.0s, three 8.5s. He watched
Yu perform a lovely final dive. He watched Xiong perform an even
better one. He watched a gold medal being draped around Xiong's
thin neck, and a silver around Yu's and a bronze around his own.
He heard several thousand people cheering for him.

Mark Lenzi had completed an amazing journey. He wasn't competing
just for gold. He was competing for his life, and he won.

COLOR PHOTO: RICHARD MACKSON Xiong won the semifinal round yesterday afternoon and was still in top form during the finals. [Xiong Ni diving]