Olympic diver Lenzi dies in N.C. hospital
OBITUARY: Mark Lenzi
MORE MEMORIES: Swim club members remember Mark
BY STEVE DeSHAZO
It’s been nearly 20 years, but Hobie Billingsley clearly remembers that warm summer evening in Barcelona.
His protégé, Mark Lenzi, was one dive away from an improbable Olympic title, a mere six years after taking up the sport. But to clinch the gold medal, the 1986 Stafford High School graduate needed to perform one of the toughest dives in the book: a reverse 3-somersault.
Billingsley could barely stand to watch, but then he noticed something.
“If it was me on the board, I’d probably have fainted, with 700 million people watching,” Billingsley said Monday. “But he was looking over at the referee and smiling, as if to say, ‘Watch this.’ I couldn’t believe it.”
Lenzi, who died Monday at age 43 in Greenville, N.C., nailed the dive—and a place in Olympic lore.
“The diving world has never seen anything like him, and probably never will,” said Olympic teammate Scott Donie. “He came from out of nowhere, and in three years, he was World Cup champion. That’s unheard of. And within six years, he won the Olympics. It was unbelievable.”
Lenzi was a standout high school wrestler—until he watched Greg Louganis win Olympic gold in Los Angeles in 1984. He passed up the chance at a college wrestling scholarship and began training in Northern Virginia.
That’s where one of Billingsley’s former Indiana University divers saw Lenzi compete in 1986. Billingsley, who had only one scholarship, offered the raw but talented Lenzi a grant-in-aid sight unseen—and the rest was Olympic history.
“He was the essence of the Cinderella story, so to speak,” said Olympic champion swimmer Jeff Rouse, who graduated from Stafford two years after Lenzi.
“He really shouldn’t have accomplished what he did—especially in a sport like diving, where they start so young. It says a lot for how talented he was and how hard he worked.”
Born on July 4, 1968, in Huntsville, Ala., Lenzi didn’t fit the mold of a champion diver. He was shorter (5-foot-4) and more muscular than most of his rivals.
But he could spin faster than anyone, and he couldn’t stand to lose.
“He had unbelievable physical ability, but it was nothing compared to his determination,” said Donie, now the diving coach at New York University. “If you’d tell him that something wasn’t possible, he just wouldn’t listen. He didn’t care.
“When I first saw him, I never thought he’d amount to much as a diver. But he worked so hard and wanted it so badly. I always smile when I think of him. I was in awe of him.”
Lenzi’s gold-medal performance came one day before Rouse swam his Olympic 100-meter backstroke final.
“I was both ecstatic and thrilled, but also so mad,” said Rouse, who won a silver that year and a gold in Atlanta in 1996. “There was so much pressure on me to do the same thing. But I couldn’t help but be happy for Mark and the way he did it.”
Lenzi retired from competition in 1993, but returned two years later and won a bronze medal at the 1996 Olympics. That may have been an even greater accomplishment than the 1992 gold, because he had to shed weight and overcome injuries just to make the U.S. team.
“He knew how to compete,” said the 86-year-old Billingsley, who also returned from retirement to coach Lenzi. “He didn’t show a thing in practice, but when the lights came on, he was unbelievable. The tougher the competition, the better he would dive.”
Lenzi was the first American diver to complete a forward 4-somersault dive off the 3-meter board in competition, and the first to score 100 points on a single dive. He was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 2003.
He won two NCAA championships at Indiana and 18 international meets, including the 1991 Pan American Games 1-meter gold medal. He also placed second at the 1991 World Championships in Perth, Australia.
He is the last American male to win an Olympic diving medal—“and it’s going to be a long time before we have another,” Billingsley said.
It was after retiring for good in 1996 that Lenzi struggled to find fulfillment.
He tried his hand at flight school—famously offering to sell his gold medal to pay for it. He worked at a computer school and coached at Clemson and East Carolina universities, as well as working with youth divers.
His father, Bill, died of a heart attack in 2007, and his mother, Ellie, said Lenzi had been taking heart medication before his death.
But three weeks ago, Lenzi began complaining of dizziness and fainting spells. He checked himself into Vidant Medical Center in Greenville, and his mother said his blood pressure had fallen to 78/48. He lost consciousness and never regained it.
Still, “[doctors] said his heart was strong,” Ellie Lenzi said. “He was always worried he would die of a heart attack.”
Instead, doctors couldn’t stop Lenzi’s internal bleeding, according to his brother, Billy. “They just couldn’t get his blood to clot,” he said.
Lenzi died about 4 a.m. Monday, with his mother in the room. The family will hold visitation Tuesday from 6–8 p.m. at Wilkerson Funeral Home in Greenville, and he will be cremated on Wednesday.
Lenzi is survived by his wife, Dorothy.
Ellie Lenzi said the family plans to hold a memorial service in the Fredericksburg area sometime in the near future, but plans are incomplete.
“It’s sad,” Rouse said. “It’s tragic that he didn’t have a chance to give back to younger divers the way he wanted to.”
Steve DeShazo: 540/374-5443