by | Sep 18, 1988 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

SEOUL, South Korea — She will be the first medalist, from now until forever, they can never take that away. It’s not easy standing on a platform nearly 33 feet above a pool of water, looking down into the turquoise deep of your soul. But Michele Mitchell did it eight times Saturday night. And when she splashed in for the final dive, into that glorious moment of deep water silence, she had become the first American to capture a medal in the first real Olympic Games in 16 years.

“Is it the same as last time?” Mitchell was asked by teammate Wendy Williams as they sat fingering the medals that had just been placed around their necks — a bronze for Williams, a silver for Mitchell.

“No,” said Mitchell, smiling, “it’s a little bit different.”

They all will be different this time around. Mitchell, of Boca Raton, Fla., was one of countless 1984 American medalists who had to live with the disclaimer: “Well, not everybody was there in Los Angeles.” Boycotts had sliced up the phrase “Olympic competition” as if it were a slab of turkey breast. There was talk that this time, finally, things would be different, things would be as we used to remember them. Everyone would be here.

They were all there at the pool. Soviets. East Germans. Americans.

She beat all but one.

“There are no excuses this time,” she said, touching the silver she had won behind China’s Xu Yanmei. She shrugged and smiled again.

“We had to listen to that stuff for a long time.” Hers was the classic all-out battle to kick off these all-out Olympics. Drama. Intensity. Mystery. Who wrote this script? Stallone? Coming into the last of eight dives, which had taken nearly two hours to complete, Mitchell trailed Xu by a mere .27 — rat’s hair in diving competition. Xu dived first, executed nicely, but left the chance open for Mitchell to steal the lead with a perfect dive.

“I don’t watch the scores when I compete,” said Mitchell, who didn’t know how close she was at the time, “but I listened to the splashes, and I could tell I had a chance.”

To the sounds of a throaty, pro-American crowd, Mitchell followed the same routine she had for the first seven dives: Walk up the ladder, look at your feet, walk up another level, stretch out your shoulders, walk up another level, roll your neck, walk to the end of the platform, and . . . do it.

“I kept saying to myself this is going to be your last one of these,” said Mitchell, 26, who will retire after these Olympics, “so let’s do the best you can do.”

She skipped to the end of the board, spun 3 1/2 somersaults, and uncoiled into the water. The splash sounded good. She surfaced to applause, pulled herself out of the pool, and for the first time, looked at the board to see where she stood.

1. XU: 445.20 2. MITCHELL: 436.95

Silver again. And so be it. Mitchell was thrilled with the rewards, as was Williams, of Bridgeton, Mo. They stood arm in arm with Xu on the victory stand and waved their flowers at the cheering crowd. It was nice, perhaps sweeter than you might expect, because Soviets and East Germans and Hungarians had competed in this, as had Americans and Japanese and Canadians. A real Olympics. A real medal.

The first medal.

“Hey, That means something,” said Mitchell, who gave up law school to concentrate her Olympics efforts. “In Los Angeles, I had to wait almost two weeks before my event. I’m glad we got going first this time.”

And they did. Across the parking lot, the Olympic men’s basketball team was playing its first game. A few miles away, American swimmers were in the water
— and so were their Communist-bloc rivals. They were boxing in the boxing hall and flipping in the gymnastics hall and playing volleyball in the gym.

And here, inside the sticky confines of Chamshil Swimming Pool, they had awarded the first medals. Real medals.

“I’m happy with this,” said Mitchell, smiling again, as hundreds of flashbulbs exploded in her face. “I think you should be happy with any medal. And now I have two.”

Real silver. Real gold. It began with a splash. Who knows what these Olympics waters bring next? CUTLINE Michele Mitchell spins through a dive in the women’s platform finals. U.S. diver Michele Mitchell waves to a well-wisher during the platform competition. She won the silver medal behind Xu Yanmei of China.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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