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The Bradsher Beat
Wednesday, April 11, 2012

By Bethany Bradsher

Bethany Bradsher

Nation's swimming community pays
respects in wake of Lenzi's passing

Mark Lenzi
(ECU SID archives image)


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By Bethany Bradsher
All rights reserved.

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When former East Carolina diving coach Rich McDonald left Greenville for the University of Virginia in 2009 and head coach Rick Kobe opened the position, he received a flood of applications. But only one was an Olympic champion.

Kobe felt that Mark Lenzi possessed the kind of talent and passion for the sport that could motivate young divers. Kobe hired Lenzi to lead the Pirate diving program, and in two seasons Lenzi saw divers receive multiple Conference USA honors and qualify for the NCAA Zone Meet.

Then on Nov. 8, just a week after his ECU divers swept a tri-meet against the College of Charleston and Georgia Southern, Lenzi resigned from his coaching position, citing personal reasons.

In the five months since his departure, Kobe lost touch with Lenzi, he said, and the longtime Pirate head coach was completely stunned yesterday when he heard the news that Lenzi had died at Vidant Medical Center at the age of 43.

“He had a big heart,” Kobe said after attending Lenzi’s visitation in Greenville on Tuesday. “He was just a really, really, really nice guy.”

One fellow swimmer called Lenzi “the essence of the Cinderella story.” He captivated the diving community and then the world in the 1990s when he medaled in two Olympic Games. After his death, friends, coaches and competitors remembered Lenzi and his incredible will to win.

"The diving world has never seen anything like him, and probably never will," Olympic teammate Scott Donie told Lenzi’s hometown newspaper. "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."

A former high school wrestling champion, Lenzi channeled his admiration for 80s diving phenom Greg Louganis into a change of sports — and a meteoric rise in the diving world. He won the gold medal in the 3-meter springboard in Barcelona in 1992 and then claimed a bronze in the same event in Atlanta in 1996, making him the last American to medal in Olympic diving.

In addition to his Olympic exploits, Lenzi was the first American diver to perform a 109C (forward 4.5 somersault tuck) in competition and the first diver to score more than 100 points in competition. Lenzi won a total of 18 international competitions at the 1- and 3-meter springboard level.

After his competitive run concluded, Lenzi tried to jumpstart a coaching career with stints leading Indiana’s junior diving team and then, in 2009, a move south to Eastern North Carolina to try his hand at collegiate coaching.

From his office in the Ward Building, media relations director Tom McClellan fielded calls from national media outlets all day on Tuesday — reporters and producers drawn by the appeal of Lenzi’s journey from triumph to tragedy. Because early reports included no details about Lenzi’s cause of death, the media requests were also consumed by the mystery of a former world-class athlete dying suddenly at such a young age.

Lenzi’s mother Ellie told the Fredericksburg (VA) Free-Lance Star that her son had been hospitalized three weeks ago because of fainting spells caused by low blood pressure. While he was hospitalized, he lost consciousness and never regained it, and his brother told the paper said that his death was caused by internal bleeding.

The visitation for Lenzi at Wilkerson Funeral Home was held just one day after his death, but despite the short notice the room was filled with people from all over the swimming community who came to Greenville to pay their respects, Kobe said. From his hometown of Fredericksburg to his alma mater of Indiana, Lenzi’s accomplishments, intensity and good nature drew a crowd of people who couldn’t miss the chance to pay their respects.

E-mail Bethany Bradsher

Bethany Bradsher Archives

04/11/2012 05:17 AM

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