The silence around the diving well -- and around Bruce Kimball's small but strong circle of friends -- can't be ignored. Kimball, who always has despised the media and the limelight, once again has collided with both. And just as he has done throughout a life of tragedy and turmoil, Kimball decided Tuesday to retreat to the isolation of diving, the only sport he has ever really known.

Kimball is a former Olympic diver whose adult life always has been measured by how he handled the latest tragedy. First the victim, now viewed by many as the villain, Kimball is best known for his life outside diving, not only because of the car accidents but also because his achievements in his sport always have been completely overshadowed by those of Greg Louganis.

In 1981, Kimball nearly died and had his face scarred and altered forever in a car accident caused by a driver his father said was drunk.

On Aug. 1, his sports car plowed into a group of teen-agers, killing two and injuring six others in Brandon, Fla., police said. He has been charged with two counts of manslaughter while driving under the influence of alcohol and three counts of driving under the influence with serious personal injuries. If convicted on all counts, he would face 45 years in prison.

Before the accident, Kimball had decided this would be his last year of diving. Now 25, Kimball has been competing nationally and internationally for 10 years and has been around the sport for as long as he can remember. He comes from one of the most illustrious diving families in the world: his father, Dick, has coached four Olympic diving teams, he coaches at the University of Michigan and his team, Kimball Divers, is recognized as one of the nation's best.

Before Aug. 1, Kimball was best known as the diver who survived the car accident of 1981. You cannot look at Kimball without thinking of it. He looks something like a prize fighter, with a pug nose and flat face and scars all over.

Kimball was going home after a party with a diver named Robert Cragg in Cragg's BMW early on a Sunday morning in October 1981 in Ann Arbor, Mich., where the family lives. A van coming toward them crossed the double yellow line and slammed into the BMW. Kimball, sitting on the passenger's side, took the brunt of the impact, which drove the car 145 feet backward.

The accident left every bone in Kimball's face broken, his skull fractured, his spleen ruptured, his liver lacerated. Among other injuries, he lost the hearing in his right ear, although that was only temporary.

His mother, Gail, said she thought her son was going to die in the emergency room. Kimball underwent 10 hours of surgery right away and had 14 more hours of it in the next week.

Ninety minutes after the first 10-hour operation, he was conscious.

"He wrote a dirty joke for one of the nurses," Gail Kimball said during a 1984 interview. "That's when we knew he didn't have brain damage."

But his face was "mush," she said. It took two surgical reconstructions to mold it back together.

Kimball was in casts and on crutches until the following April, half a year later. In late May, he began diving. Six weeks later, at the Olympic Festival, he finished second to Louganis.

Louganis pulled him onto the top rung of the victory stand that day.

"Bruce," he said, "is the real winner."

From that moment on, Kimball, a feisty fellow who rarely smiles, was called "The Comeback Kid."

Kimball beat Louganis three times in the two years prior to the Olympics, but finished second to him on the platform at the trials here four years ago, and finished second to him at the Olympics. Since that time, Kimball has not won a national championship and is only one of several divers who is considered a favorite to make the 1988 Olympic team, but by no means is a lock.

Louganis listed him fourth when discussing his competitors for the platform title here. He said he has "no opinion" on Kimball's situation and was not one of the dozen or so divers and friends who stood behind Kimball when he announced he would dive here.

"We don't hang out together," Louganis said.

It's not easy to get to know Kimball the way it is to get to know other divers, some of whom seek out reporters for conversation.

"I don't like interviews," he told USA Today last month. "I like to walk out feeling I did the job and not have to say anything about it."

In the past, he also reportedly has resented the tremendous amount of coverage Louganis has received.

Kimball is known as a tremendously consistent diver, a trait that will be tested this week. He dives the way his sport would be programmed by a computer, says Michele Mitchell, who also won a silver medal in 1984.

But his consistency on the platform is contrasted, tragically and remarkably, by his behavior behind the wheel of a car.

Newspaper accounts have reported that Kimball has had a history of traffic infractions: three speeding tickets in Florida over the past five years and six citations in Michigan. His Michigan driver's license was suspended from 1986 to mid-1987.

Dick Kimball cried as his son read his statement Tuesday with a quavering voice.

"No one knows what's going to happen," said diver Megan Neyer, who, like Louganis, was not present when Kimball spoke. "It's just sad for everyone concerned."