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Inside Olympic Sports


Dashing diver Mark Ruiz took over the indoor nationals with two
come-from-behind wins

With his engaging enthusiasm and Ricky Martin looks, 21-year-old
Mark Ruiz is pumping some fresh air into U.S. diving. Last
Friday at the national indoor championships in Minneapolis, Ruiz
was pumping his fist, too, as he bobbed to the surface after his
final dive in the three-meter springboard final. The dive, a
reverse tuck 3 1/2 with a half twist, had barely rippled the
water. A wave of copycat fist pumps swept through the crowd even
before the judges awarded their marks, which were between 7.5
and 8.5. The scores gave Ruiz, who had stood seventh with four
dives to go, 650.64 points for the competition, 1.38 ahead of
runner-up David Pichler.

The next day Ruiz went into the finals of the 10-meter platform
having finished seventh in the preliminaries, but he rallied to
win again. Shortly after that he teamed with Pichler to win the
synchronized 10-meter event.

Ruiz taught himself to dive by flinging himself off ropes and
tree branches into a lake in his hometown of Toa Alta, Puerto
Rico. His mother, Lydia Torres, used to sneak him into hotel
pools to swim, though Ruiz kept crawling out of the water so he
could flop back in again. He was four when he first dived off a
10-meter platform and nine when he finally joined a club, bought
a Greg Louganis diving video and started taking ballet classes
because his coach told him Louganis had.

When Ruiz was 12, Torres moved him and her other two children to
Orlando to find better training for Ruiz. "You have to kick him
out of the pool to get him to leave," says Jay Lerew, Ruiz's
coach since 1997.

The three titles in Minneapolis gave Ruiz a career total of 16,
a distant second among U.S. male divers to Louganis's 47. "Mark
has a natural feel for diving," says Louganis, "and he isn't
resting on his accomplishments."

Ruiz is a prohibitive favorite to make the U.S. Olympic team on
springboard and platform; in Sydney he is a good bet to improve
on his sixth-place on the 10-meter at the 1998 worlds in Perth.
Last year he came from behind on his last dive to win the
three-meter title at the Pan-Am Games, edging Fernando Platas of
Mexico by less than a point. In close competitions, it seems,
Ruiz has a flair for pump and circumstance.

Wrestling Nationals

Oddsmakers might have deemed it an upset, but Kerry McCoy's 3-2
defeat of superstar heavyweight Stephen Neal at the U.S.
national wrestling championships in Las Vegas last Saturday
wasn't that shocking. After all, McCoy was the only man in the
world to have defeated Neal in 1999. Two days before last week's
match Neal had acknowledged that his route through the
tournament, the most important qualifier for the Olympic trials,
wouldn't be easy. "We have a lot of talent in our division," he
said. "I was fifth seed at this tournament last year and went on
to win the world title."

Neal could have been referring to the depth of the entire
American freestyle squad. The U.S., by virtue of its performance
in international tournaments this year, has qualified to wrestle
in all eight weight classes at the Olympics, and the team is
strong enough to challenge for medals in every one. Among the
other winners in Vegas were such proven performers as former
world champions Sammie Henson at 54 kg (119 pounds) and Les
Gutches at 85 kg (187.25). The winners last week earned top
seeds at the Olympic trials in June in Dallas. There each will
have to wrestle only a best-of-three series against the winner
of a minitournament held over the first two days of competition,
giving the top seeds a huge advantage over the other
competitors. Says Greg Strobel, co-coach of the U.S. freestyle
team, "There will be very few changes in Dallas."

While Strobel's crew left the Strip with a stacked deck, the
U.S. Greco-Roman squad, which has qualified for Sydney in only
four weight classes, must be hoping for a redeal. The runner-up
at heavyweight last Saturday was 38-year-old Matt Ghaffari, who
won a silver medal at Atlanta in 1996. Ghaffari's presence in
the finals underscored the lack of new Greco-Roman blood in the
U.S. "The best athletes go to college and wrestle Division I,"
says Dan Chandler, coach of the Olympic Greco-Roman team. "They
can go right into the world freestyle tournament and place in
the top three. If I change them over to Greco, it takes two or
three years." --Mark Beech

U.S. Boxing Eligibility Update

Thanks to recent action in and out of the ring, the U.S. will
send a full 12-boxer squad to Sydney. With wins in the Americas
Olympic Qualifier in Tijuana, Mexico, last week, U.S. Olympic
team members Brian Viloria (106 pounds), Dante Craig (147) and
Olanda Anderson (178) secured berths in the Games. (Among
countries in the Americas, only Cuba is guaranteed an Olympic
berth in every weight class; all other nations must qualify
boxers individually.) In addition 132-pounder David Jackson, who
had been named by USA Boxing to replace trials winner Marshall
Martinez on the Olympic team--Martinez relinquished his spot on
April 7 for what officials called "unspecified personal
reasons"--was cleared by boxing's international governing body
to box in Martinez's place in Sydney without having to qualify.

COLOR PHOTO: SIMON BRUTY Ruiz, who began diving as a kid in Puerto Rico, has 16 national titles, second only to his hero, Louganis.