Diver can't make final dive

Updated: June 13, 2004, 1:49 AM ET
Associated Press

ST. PETERS, Mo. -- Mark Ruiz climbed to the next-to-last ledge of the 33-foot-high tower -- and couldn't go any farther.

Overwhelmed by a fear of heights after a painful crash in practice, the 2000 Olympian skipped a dive during the U.S. trials Saturday night, costing himself a chance to make the squad in 10-meter platform.

"I'm so disappointed," said Ruiz, who competed in three events at Sydney but will do only one -- synchronized platform -- in Athens. "To not be on the Olympic team in this event is devastating."

Ruiz's dramatic decision didn't affect the outcome at the top of the standings -- Caesar Garcia dominated from start to finish to earn his first Olympic berth.

On the women's side, Kimiko Soldati bounced back from a poor dive to win 3-meter springboard. At 30, she's the oldest diver at the trials.

Under new rules, the second men's platform berth went to the top-scoring diver from the winning synchro team -- Ruiz and Kyle Prandi.

Ruiz was up by about 10 points after the fourth round, coming off his best dive of the night. He received one perfect 10 and nothing lower than 9 for a backward tuck 3½-turn somersault.

Inside, though, Ruiz's emotions were churning. He was coming up on the dive that begins from an armstand atop the towering platform -- the same dive that caused his problems in practice.

"I rely totally on my spots with that dive, but I was completely lost," he said.

Ruiz landed flat on his chest, bursting blood vessels in his stomach. It was still bright red as he prepared to compete in the evening. He broke down in tears during in the introductions, unsure if he even wanted to compete.

"When you smack like that off the high tower, the fears start to come," Ruiz said. "I just wanted to take a couple of days off and gather myself."

He didn't have that option.

Prandi, competing just ahead of Ruiz, nailed his fifth dive, the same armstand maneuver that had his friend terrified. Ruiz was climbing the tower, but never went all the way to the top. When he saw Prandi's scores -- one 10, the rest ranging from 8.5 to 9.5 -- the decision was made. Ruiz walked slowly down the tower, while the scoreboard flashed a row of 0s.

"Basically, he made my decision with his dive," Ruiz said. "If he did well, I wasn't going to throw myself off the tower and try to guess where I was. If he missed, I was going to go ahead and try."

With nothing to gain, Ruiz did his final dive and scored respectably.

"For me, the whole thing was a little bit embarrassing," he said. "I felt like I had to finish."

Garcia went to his last dive merely having to avoid falling off the tower. He did much better than that -- five 10s on a near-perfect backward pike 2½ somersault with 1½ twists.

"The last three divers had hit," said Garcia, a 22-year-old Louisiana native. "I knew that's what it will be like at the Olympics, that kind of excitement, that kind of intensity. I let it all out and released the beast."

Garcia, who finished last in platform at the 2000 trials, totaled 1,157.94 points. He easily beat 14-year-old Thomas Finchum, a 92-pound schoolboy from Indianapolis who had 1,069.

In previous years, the second-place finisher also made the team. The new format will keep Finchum at home.

"I'm not disappointed," he said. "This will definitely give me good experience for the future."

Soldati didn't start diving seriously until a dozen years ago and overcame numerous injuries to claim her first spot on the Olympic team.

Her second dive was ugly -- Soldati over-rotated on an inward pike 2½ somersault, creating a huge splash as she sliced through the water. The crowd groaned and the scores confirmed their assessment -- 4s and 4.5s that dropped her into second place behind Rachelle Kunkel.

Michelle Davison, a 2000 Olympian, was charging, too. She was just 7.2 points behind Soldati with three dives remaining.

"I missed that dive, but I was OK with it," said Soldati, a Colorado native who now lives in Texas. "I thought about it for about 30 seconds. That's it. Then it was time to move on."

Soldati, who passed time between dives listening to the Usher song "Yeah!" on her headphones, bounced right back. Her last three dives were on the mark, closing with a reverse pike 2½ somersault that clinched it.

Soldati finished with 884.70 points, while Kunkel became a first-time Olympian with 874.38.

Davison settled for third at 870.60 -- just 3.78 points out of a return trip to the Games. She was 12th in the springboard at Sydney.

Soldati was a top-level gymnast in high school, but the first of her injuries -- a torn knee ligament -- prompted her father to encourage a switch to diving. She finally got serious about it as a freshman at Colorado State, where she competed on the 3-meter board for the first time.

A steady string of injuries slowed Soldati's progress. In all, she's had four shoulder surgeries and two knee operations.

"I'm not amazed she pulled it off, but I'm amazed she got to this point," said her husband, Adam. "I know that day in, day out is a constant struggle. There are days she gets out of bed and can't even move her arms."

Soldati's father, Gary Hirai, was born in an internment camp for Japanese-Americans during the closing months of World War II. He was there on Saturday, cheering on his daughter with about 30 family and friends, thrilled that she'll be representing the country that once locked up his parents.

"It's just neat," Hirai said. "It all fits together perfectly, as far as I'm concerned."

Soldati's mother, Judy Hirai, died in 1992 after a long struggle with breast cancer. Her influence was evident at the trials -- from her wedding ring, which Soldati wears while diving, to her daughter's indomitable will.

"My wife was so strong and so focused on not complaining while she was sick. She just wanted to do the best she could," Hirai said. "That carried over to our daughter."

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press