As news of Mark Lenzi’s death began to circulate among former Olympic teammates and friends early Tuesday, there were expressions of shock and sadness.
"Mark Lenzi was a great champion and an inspiration to an entire generation of divers," said United States Olympic Committee Chief Executive Officer Scott Blackmun. "While Mark’s passing at such a young age is heartbreaking, I hope that his family and friends can take some small amount of solace in the life that Mark lived and the difference that he made in countless young athletes’ lives. On behalf of the Olympic family in the United States, I offer my sincere condolences."
Though Lenzi will be remembered for being the last American man to win an Olympic diving gold medal, at Barcelona in 1992, those who knew him best recalled a person who was an inspiration to others.
Lenzi, 43, died early Monday after spending two weeks in critical condition at a hospital in Greenville, N.C. He had been hospitalized for two weeks following fainting spells and a severe drop in blood pressure, reported The Free-Lance Star of Fredericksburg, Va.
Lenzi was a high school wrestler when he became inspired while watching American diver Greg Louganis in the Los Angeles 1984 Olympic Games. He switched sports and made a rapid climb up the diving ladder, earning a scholarship to Indiana University and winning two NCAA diving championships while also being selected the NCAA’s Diver of the Year in 1989 and 1990.
In 1992, he won the Olympic gold medal in the 3-meter springboard in Barcelona and added a bronze medal to his collection in the same event four years later in Atlanta. No American diver has won a gold since Lenzi in 1992, a span of 20 years, or a medal of any kind since his bronze in 1996.
“He was the essence of the Cinderalla story, so to speak,” Olympic swimmer Jeff Rouse, a high school teammate of Lenzi’s at Stafford High School in Falmouth, Va., told The Free-Lance Star. “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.”
Louganis, Lenzi’s inspiration, reacted on Twitter Tuesday, writing: “Find peace and joy with the angels Mark Lenzi, sending healing prayers to your family. Love and light, @greglouganis.” Later, writing on the USA Diving website, Louganis wrote: “Mark and I spoke just a few weeks ago, my heart goes out to you. There are no words to express how heartfelt a loss this is. Healing hugs, Greg.”
Scott Donie, an Olympic teammate of Lenzi’s, told The Free-Lance Star: “The diving world has never seen anything like him, and probably never will. 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.”
Donie added that Lenzi’s determination was even far greater than his talent – and he was supremely talented.
“If you’d tell him that something wasn’t possible, he just wouldn’t listen,” Donie said. “He didn’t care.”
USA Diving Chairman Bob Rydze said the organization is “truly saddened” by Lenzi’s death.
“As an Olympic gold and bronze medalist, Mark was one of our country’s greatest divers, and he will be missed tremendously,” Rydze said.
Lenzi became a diver at the age of 16, far later than most who excel at the sport.
“No one has ever learned that quick and done so much,” former Indiana University coach Hobie Billingsley told The Indianapolis Star.
Lenzi once said that when he watched Louganis dive in the 1984 Olympics, he somehow knew he could succeed as a diver, too. The Indianapolis Star reported Lenzi, speaking at the Olympic Games in Barcelona, believed he could do what Louganis was doing.
“It’s the strangest thing,” Lenzi said. “But ever since I saw the Olympics in ’84, I just knew I could do it. I put my trust in God. He gave me the opportunity, and I did the best I could with it.”
After his diving career, Lenzi gave back to his sport, often worked with young divers.
David Boudia, a member of the U.S. Olympic diving team at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games and a 16-time national champion, says he didn’t know Lenzi well, but when they did speak, “He was very encouraging and always willing to give me advice to make me that much better in the pool. He is a part of history for USA Diving and the Olympics and will be missed by many.”
Boudia, who became the first American male in 25 years to win a medal in men’s 10-meter at the 2011 FINA World Championships when he earned the silver, is considered to be Team USA’s top medal contender this summer in London.
Lenzi, who went on to coach at Indiana, Clemson and East Carolina after he retired from diving for good in 1996, was an eight-time national champion and a two-time World Cup gold medalist. Also, he was the first diver to score more than 100 points on a single dive and was selected USA Diving’s Athlete of the Year in 1991 and 1992.
Lenzi was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 2003.
Following his retirement from diving, Lenzi experienced some difficult times trying to find his niche. He struggled with “post-Olympic blues” and depression following his first retirement from diving after the 1992 Olympic Games. That struggle eventually prompted his comeback for the 1996 Games.
Recently, Lenzi’s mother said Lenzi had been taking heart medication, The Free-Lance Star reported. His father, Bill, died of a heart attack in 2007.
Three weeks ago, the paper reported, Lenzi began complaining of dizziness and fainting spells and checked himself into Vidant Medical Center in Greenville. He lost consciousness and never regained it. He died early Monday in the hospital.
He is survived by his wife, Dorothy, mother, Ellie, and three siblings.Billingsley, his former coach, said that Lenzi always knew “how to compete.”
“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,” Billingsley told The Free-Lance Star.