I shouldn’t be reading the obituaries of my Olympic heroes. I’m getting older, but not old enough yet to read of their passing. This morning I was greeted with the news of Mark Lenzi’s death. The two-time Olympic diver who won gold in 1992 and bronze in 1996, died yesterday in Greenville, North Carolina where he’d served as diving coach for Eastern Carolina University. He was only 43.
Mark Lenzi didn’t follow a traditional path in becoming a two-time Olympic medalist. He hadn’t grown up in a diving family. He hadn’t started in gymnastics and then switched to diving. Lenzi was a wrestler, his short build well suited to the sport. But after watching Greg Louganis win gold in 1984, Linzi was inspired to switch sports. Just eight years later, Lenzi was inspiring others who watched him clinch Olympic gold in 1992 on the 3-meter springboard, and again in 1996 when he came out of retirement to win a bronze at the 1996 Games in Atlanta.
In 1992 Lenzi was part of a men’s Olympic team that no longer had its anchor Greg Louganis and was struggling somewhat to find its identity. Louganis had retired, opening the door for others to emerge, such as Kent Ferguson and Scott Donie. Yet it was Lenzi who stole the spotlight, earning 9’s from the judges to become the 1992 Olympic Champion in men’s 3-meter springboard diving. No American male diver has won gold since.
It was Lenzi’s bronze medal in 1996, though, that perhaps is more memorable to fans. Following his 1992 win, Lenzi retired; and like so many other athletes, he struggled with depression. Struggled with life in a post-Olympics world once the reporters and endorsement deals disappeared. Lenzi was very candid in discussing how he hit rock bottom after the 1992 Games, and he played an active role in lobbying the USOC to set up a counseling program for ex-Olympians. So in 1995 when he decided to return to diving, he came back for different reasons. He wasn’t aiming for a medal, but rather for personal fulfillment. In many ways, Lenzi’s bronze medal, his third place finish, was much sweeter than Olympic Gold four years earlier.
The world didn’t just lose an Olympic medalist with Mark Lenzi’s passing. We lost an Olympian who truly embodied the Olympic spirit. His determination to pull himself out of the throes of depression was inspiring to many, both athletes and fans, and it served as a reminder to me that the medal isn’t always the most important goal. Lenzi also decided to give back to his sport, raising awareness about mental illness among Olympians and coaching divers on the collegiate level. Lenzi may have retired from competitive diving, but he continued to give back to the sport and the international movement which helped mold him into the person he became.
Swifter, Higher, Stronger.