Mark Lenzi's lesser-known Olympic story
Here is my personal Mark Lenzi story, on the occasion of his death on Monday at 43 after experiencing fainting spells and dramatically low blood pressure. Lenzi was an Olympic diver -- the last American male diver, in fact, to win a gold medal -- so it's an Olympic story, but not one often told.
"I'm sure you've heard of post-Olympic blues," Lenzi said. "You train so hard to win a gold medal and you wake up the next morning after you've won, and it's just the next day. You achieve that lofty goal, and then you're depressed."
In 1992, I sat with Lenzi's parents at the Barcelona Olympics diving venue atop Montjuic -- "Mountain of the Jews" -- with its spectacular sweeping view of the Catalan capital. They wore sleeveless T-shirts with scraggly hand-stitched lettering proclaiming their son a participant in the men's springboard final, demonstrably proud.
Lenzi's mother, Ellie, told of his two brothers and sister and countless friends and neighbors simultaneously watching Lenzi, then 24, via TV an ocean away at their Fredericksburg, Va., home. His father, Bill, told of how Mark had been a good high school wrestler, and how he and his son "had a real falling out" over Mark's decision to give up wrestling -- and a possible college scholarship -- to take up diving at 16.
"He even went and lived with a neighbor for a while," Bill Lenzi said then, and added that he was "flabbergasted" when Mark was offered a diving scholarship to Indiana. "But very happy and proud."
Lenzi's victory that day was the sporting equivalent to walking on the moon. And then he discovered what astronaut Buzz Aldrin wrote in his book about coming home from actually walking on the moon, of "suffering from what poets have described as the melancholy of all things done."
From the disorienting suddenness of being in the world's spotlight came the suddenness of that spotlight switched off, and Lenzi found himself dealing with the emotional bends.
"We don't do this for money," he said, "but when I came back from Barcelona, I had friends say, 'Oh, yeah, he's making appearances for $20,000.' And you start thinking, 'Hey, I deserve it. I won a gold medal.' You forget why you do it.
"I'm a kid from nowhere and all of a sudden I'm on the 'Tonight' show. You're being told one day, 'You're a famous athlete,' and the next day, nobody knows who you are. It's easy to fall into the trap. You start believing you're God's gift to the world."
Lenzi had watched the supremely stylish Greg Louganis win two diving gold medals in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics on television and decided, "Louganis makes that look so easy, I want to do that." So when his hometown pool removed the diving board because there was no money for the insurance costs, Lenzi simply sought out private diving clubs and, two months into his first competitive season, was recruited to Indiana, where he won two NCAA titles.
But, after Barcelona, he wondered, "Now what?"
He gained 35 pounds. He spent his time in bars or in front of the TV set. He had no motivation. "I was hurting," he said, "and meanwhile, I know people were saying, 'What's his problem? He just won a gold medal.' I needed someone to say, 'Come on, Mark, snap out of it.'"
The Indiana coach, Hobie Billingsly, had told Lenzi to "make sure you have something else besides diving," but Lenzi said, "I just didn't listen. In '92, I had to win or I'd have really been a mess. Thank God I did win. I became a mess, anyway."
In fact, Lenzi hardly was the only Olympic champion to experience the post-gold medal blahs. And he recovered to resume training, subsequently winning a bronze medal in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. He later worked as a swimming administrator at Indiana and as swimming coach at East Carolina University.
But he revealed what the sporting public barely suspects about winning The Big One. The melancholy of all things done.