Despite odds, Ruehl is 2nd after prelims

The Cincinnati Enquirer

ATLANTA - Becky Ruehl is a diver who defies physics. She leaps from a 33-foot tower and lands like a raindrop. She causes less splashing than a three-year-old in a bathtub. She confounds her coaches as well as her rivals.

''I wish I knew how to explain it,'' Charlie Casuto said Friday. ''But as clean as she gets in, I'm not really sure how it happens.''

Casuto has coached Becky Ruehl since she first started plunging into pools, and he still could not fully account for her success after she became a contender for a gold medal. Northern Kentucky's first-ever Olympian ranked second in the Olympic women's 10-meter platform preliminaries Friday, and Casuto wasn't the only one caught by surprise.

Becky Ruehl can't get enough time on 10-meter platforms to perform at such lofty levels. Her practice limitations have caused her to skimp on degree of difficulty, which compromises her chances against world-class competition. She wouldn't make much sense at all in the Summer Games except that when she slices through the water, the surface remains still.

'It just worked'

Ruehl attempted five dives during Friday's preliminaries, and the worst of them was wonderful. Three different judges gave her at least one score of 9.0, on three different dives. No one else in the field - and there were 33 of them altogether - drew a score of 9.0 on as many as two dives.

''I felt just like someone was pulling me toward the water head-first,'' she explained. ''It just worked.''

Fu Mingxia of China leads Ruehl, 329.25-323.91, entering this morning's second round of qualifying, but these point totals are of little consequence. Friday's scores will not be carried over into tonight's medal competition, only the confidence they have created.

''Based on her performance today, which is incredibly awesome, she's got that knack, and she's doing her thing, and her thing works,'' said Mary Ellen Clark, the 1992 bronze medalist. ''She's not ruffled under the circumstances and that's really something. . . . She's really got a lot of experience for one who's 19.''

''Eighteen,'' Ruehl replied.

Becky Ruehl has always been a precocious athlete. She was a gymnast first, and nimble enough at 9 years old that her sportswriter uncle, Dan Weber, took her to meet Casuto. The University of Cincinnati coach asked the young girl to point her toes and observed that she had more muscle definition than most of the boys on his team.

Casuto couldn't coax Ruehl to change into a swimsuit that day, much less convince her to leap from a diving board. But he recognized that Ruehl was an unusual prospect, and he relaxed his policy against coaching 9-year-olds.

When Becky Ruehl finally jumped from the 10-meter platform, she tried (unsuccessfully) to stifle a scream. Now, she hardly makes a sound at all, either in or out of the pool. Between dives Friday, Ruehl occupied herself by reading Jane Austen's ''Persuasion.''

''I didn't look at (the standings) at all,'' she said. ''I had no idea what position I was in. I thought maybe top five, so I was surprised to see second. . . .

''I was really nervous, but not as nervous as I was at the (Olympic) Trials. I felt exactly the way I wanted to be. I was nervous, but not too nervous, just enough to help me do my dive well. I am just going to try and dive the same way (today) and see what happens. I just want to make the finals. Last year at the World Championships, I got ninth. I'm hoping to do that or better.''

She needs to be perfect

Becky Ruehl could reasonably aim higher, but her optional dives do not allow her much margin for error. Because her program is not as difficult as those of other top divers, she must hit each dive to remain in contention.

''I tried to change my list awhile ago, and it didn't work,'' Ruehl said. ''I changed my dives for nationals and finished last, so I changed them back. I've kind of been in a holding pattern.''

Friday, Becky Ruehl was holding second place in the Olympics. Not a bad place to be.

Tim Sullivan is an Enquirer columnist.

Published July 27, 1996.