Lenzi back from depths

The Cincinnati Enquirer

ATLANTA - Mark Lenzi's most difficult dive was a nosedive.

The American diver left Barcelona four years ago with a gold medal around his neck, and it was as if someone had attached an anvil to his ankle. His success acted not as a springboard, but a sinker.

"I was on the Tonight Show," he said Thursday. "I was on Regis and Kathie Lee. I thought I was going to make some money. The next day there's nothing. You expect it to change your life dramatically, but after five or six months you're old news."

Lenzi suffered from an affliction he calls the "Post-Olympic blues," and which sounds from his symptoms like a severe bout of depression. He grew fat and listless, drinking hard and sleeping late. He was out of shape, out of work, and so low on funds that he considered using his gold medal as collateral to raise cash.

"I was tired all the time," he said. "I had no motivation to do anything. I would sit on the couch and watch the TV for eight hours straight, didn't even change the channel . . .

"I just felt like I accomplished everything I was ever going to do in my life, that there was nothing left. I wasn't suicidal. There was just nothing left for me to do."

Mark Lenzi is not looking for sympathy any more. What he seeks is our concern. He recounted his cautionary tales at the U.S. Olympic Committee's Media Summit in the hope it would lead to the development of placement programs for retiring Olympians. He has shown that the descent from the medals stand can be just as arduous as the climb.

"If I hadn't won in Barcelona, I really would have been a mess," he said. "Thank God I did win. But I became a mess anyway.

"Someone told me winning the medal was an excuse for people not to like me, and I found myself apologizing for winning. I always put myself down so that people wouldn't think I was better than them."

Mark Lenzi quit diving in 1993, and promptly put on 35 pounds of beer gut. When he finally returned to the pool - at 5-foot-5, 180 pounds - he wore shorts because he could no longer squirm into a Speedo. Friends mockingly debated whether Lenzi would need a life preserver when he hit the water, or whether flab would cause him to float. And still, they could not shame him toward a more promising path.

"You've got to hit rock bottom before you can bounce back," Lenzi said. "I woke up one morning and said, 'Enough.' I said I'm sick of feeling sorry for myself."

"Were you hung over?" he was asked.

"Yeah," Lenzi said. "That had something to do with it. I remember waking up going, 'This is not me. I'm a better human being than this.' "

He has since risen from rock bottom, and has rapidly risen through diving's ranks. Last month, at a meet in Maryland, Lenzi surpassed Greg Louganis' 1983 world record for the highest score over 11 dives on the 3-meter springboard. He will seek a spot on the Olympic team during the U.S. Trials June 19-23 in Indianapolis.

Should Lenzi prevail at the Trials, he will be among the favorites in the Summer Games of Atlanta. Since 1920, a U.S. diver has won the men's Olympic 3-meter gold medal 15 times in 16 tries (not counting the boycotted Moscow Games of 1980).

"In '92, I had to win," Lenzi said. "It was a must. I had to keep the streak going. I don't have to win this time. I'm doing it because I really enjoy it. And when it's over: Finito. I'm going to be done after that and I promise I won't come back."

Last time around, Mark Lenzi did not know what to do with himself. This time, his course is plotted. Today, he will register at Indiana University to pursue a degree in meteorology.

Somewhere in his apartment he will hide a sock with an Olympic gold medal stuffed inside. Lenzi doesn't leave it out for fear of burglars, but he can't bear the thought of letting it sit in a safe-deposit box. His guests invariably want to see it, and he still likes to show it off.

"I'm living a wonderful life," Lenzi said Thursday. "I can't (complain) about too many things."

Published April 26, 1996.