July 22, 1996 12:00 PM

IT CAME DOWN TO THE FINAL, FANCIEST dive. Mark Lenzi’s performance in the first round at the Olympic diving trials in Indianapolis four weeks previously had been abysmal. He’d managed to pull himself up from fifth to third place, but the U.S. would be taking only two spring-boarders to Atlanta. “You’re the best diver in the world,” Lenzi, 28, remembers telling himself as he prepared for a reverse 3½-somersault tuck, the most difficult in the competition. “You’ve done this a million times. Just show everyone you can do it.”

Lenzi didn’t just do it, he nailed it, and edged into second place. “Amazing!” said top finisher Scott Donie to the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel. But Lenzi, in winning a place on the ’96 team, had not only staged the comeback of the trials, he had also returned from two years of blackest despair.

In 1992, as an Olympic gold medalist, Lenzi was one of America’s darlings. Home from Barcelona, he experienced a brief but potent rush of celebrityhood—the Tonight Show and Good Morning America came calling, and he made numerous appearances for the Olympic Committee. Lenzi loved the attention—and was devastated when it evaporated in a matter of months. “You start believing you’re God’s gift to the world,” says Lenzi. “The next day no one knows you. Maybe it’s the fact that you train so long and hard for the medal. You expect it to change your life dramatically. The post-Olympic blues hit me hard.”

Suddenly, Lenzi had no job offers and no idea what to do with himself. His self-esteem did a half-gainer into an empty pool. “I couldn’t get myself to do anything,” says Lenzi. Scraping by on his savings, he began drinking and filled his once-toned body with junk food. Thirty extra pounds later, he laments, “I was a tub.” He remembers getting up at 4 one afternoon and looking in the mirror: “My face was white, my eyes were all red, and I thought, ‘Enough!’ ”

In 1994, broke and living alone in Bloomington, Ind., Lenzi says he told a reporter from his hometown, Fredericksburg, Va., that he might use his Olympic medal as collateral for a loan to become a professional pilot; soon tabloid TV claimed he was trying to sell his medal. “It turned into this big fiasco,” he says. In the end he accepted free tuition from a Sanford, Fla., flight school in return for making promotional appearances.

Flying, however, was never more than a second love. The middle child of Bill, a Defense Department physicist, and Ellie, a homemaker, Lenzi entered the world with a knotted umbilical cord that he says had curled him into a diving (tuck) position. “That’s probably why I’m so short,” says Lenzi, who stands 5’4″. “I’m the runt of the family.” He laughs about it now, but as a kid he was taunted for being small.

At South Stafford High School, Lenzi sought to raise his stature by going out for wrestling and soon was the best in his weight class. Early in his senior year he was offered wrestling scholarships by a number of colleges—and turned them all down. The decision so infuriated his father that Mark had to move out for two weeks and stay with a teacher. “Here I was,” says Lenzi, “giving up scholarships to pursue a sport no one around here ever heard of.”

The sport, of course, was diving. Lenzi had come to the springboard late, and he plunged in passionately at 17 only after seeing Greg Louganis’s 1984 Olympic gold medal performance. Six months after he started diving, Lenzi won a meet in Princeton, N.J. Word about this amazing newcomer reached Indiana University’s diving coach Hobie Billingsley, who offered him a full scholarship. This time, Lenzi accepted.

Billingsley saw him through the agony as well as the ecstasy. “After Barcelona, Mark thought he was going to be a star,” says Billingsley, who has seen many of the 19 Olympians he has trained suffer post-Games letdown. “Every week, Mark would change his mind about what he was going to do with his life. He was a mess.”

“I think Mark was expecting to make a living [from diving],” says Ramona Benkert, 23, his girlfriend. “But he couldn’t. This is the problem with the sport. A football player who sits on the bench makes $1 million, and the world’s best diver doesn’t have enough to live on? Something’s wrong.”

In late 1994, Lenzi found himself beside a pool near the flight school and decided to try the water, which hit him with the force of revelation: He realized that he longed to test himself again in the Olympics. “There have only been a handful of people who have won back-to-back,” he says.

Lenzi and Billingsley are now working on a dive they think will do it—a reverse 3½ with a half twist. No matter what happens in Atlanta, Lenzi is older and, he says, wiser. “I don’t consider myself a victim,” he says. “I’ve had a very lucky life.” After the Games, he intends to return to Indiana to study meteorology. “This time,” he says, “I have a plan.”

WILLIAM PLUMMER

BONNIE BELL in Bloomington

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