Sprawled on the living room sofa of his Orlando home, Mark Ruiz is doing two of his favorite things: devouring a chocolate chip granola bar and watching himself dive. In the video du jour, shot at the Olympic Trials in June, the 21-year-old is mired in fourth place in the 3-meter springboard competition. He’s got just one dive left to make the team in that event, and it’s a gnarly reverse 3½ somersault tuck with half a twist. After a few graceful strides down the board, Mark launches himself high into the air, his body whirls, and then he slices into the water. “Nobody thought I would come back,” Ruiz says of the dive, which boosted him into first place—and on to Sydney. “But I don’t give up until the event is over. I always dig down deep inside of me.”
That determination has made Ruiz America’s most winning active diver, with 16 national titles to his credit. He also ranks as the best hope for the underdog U.S. squad to medal in Sydney, where he will compete in as many as four events—the 3-meter springboard, 10-meter platform and one or both of the new synchronized diving events. “He’s not one of those divers who goes out and says, ‘Oh, I just want to do a pretty dive.’ He wants to go out and kick your butt,” says Ruiz’s buddy Mark Lenzi, a 1992 gold medalist. “The only obstacles you face are the ones you put in front of yourself, and I think Mark has a good idea of how to get those obstacles out of the way.”
Ruiz certainly has had plenty of practice. He got his start in the sport back in his native Puerto Rico at age 2, when his struggling single mother would sneak him into the pools of exclusive hotels in San Juan. There, he would amaze both lifeguards and tourists with his feats. When he couldn’t get access to a pool, he would swing off tree limbs and do flips into large ponds. “He was too hyper. But he was a natural athlete,” says mom Lydia Torres, now 53. “This is why I put him into sports, to channel his energy.”
Diving became more than a simple outlet for a boy with a hole in his life where his father should have been. Lydia and John Ruiz divorced when Mark was just 1. John, who moved to New York, eventually reconciled with his son, but then died in 1998 of a heart attack. “It nearly killed me when my father died,” says Mark. “I miss him a lot.”
Though working long hours as a hairstylist to support her three children, Lydia continued to help her son develop his diving skills. When the public pool where Ruiz was training closed, his coach there convinced Torres her son had championship potential and recommended that Mark consider moving to Orlando—where he had already attended a training camp—to work with coach Jeff Shaffer. In 1992 Torres sold her salon, left her two older children, then 21 and 17, and a newborn grandchild under her own mother’s watchful eye, and made the move. “I guess it was mother’s intuition,” she explains.
U.S. diving team coach Jay Lerew, who has worked with Ruiz in Orlando for the past four years, remembers seeing him at a training session not long after his arrival—elbowing ahead of other divers waiting their turn. “He didn’t speak much English. Mark didn’t understand there was some etiquette involved,” recalls Lerew. “Then he’d do this awesome dive and parents would clap. He liked showing off.” He still does, as Ruiz readily concedes: “I’m disciplined—I’m an athlete—but I like to have a lot of fun.”
When he’s not training, Ruiz, who graduated from Orlando’s Dr. Phillips High School in 1998, can often be found grazing on junk food in the modest cement block house he shares with his mother and his stepfather of four years, Armando Torres, a manager at an Orlando home supply center. (Ruiz’s brother John, 29, stepbrother and stepsister are all college students; sister Giselle Ruiz, 25, and her 9-year-old daughter Jesely now live nearby and visit constantly.) Ruiz enjoys jet skiing and playing golf with girlfriend Nicole Bolt, 18, a diver on the city diving team whom he met when she was in sixth grade. She “will join Mark’s mother in the stands at the Olympics in September.
To help get himself pumped up for the big event, Ruiz turns to another favorite videotape. No, it’s not a diving meet—it’s the 1998 NBA finals, Chicago Bulls versus Utah Jazz, when Michael Jordan lofted an impossible shot in the last four seconds to snatch the title. “I’ve accomplished a lot of remarkable things,” says Ruiz. “But I’m not there yet.”
Jeanne DeQuine in Orlando and Cynthia Wang in Federal Way, Wash.