Lydia Torres sat in the stands at the Pan Am Pool today, wearing a pale yellow shirt instead of the "USA Diving" T-shirt that she normally wears when she watches her son, Mark Ruiz, compete.
Today's event was merely the preliminaries for the three-meter springboard diving competition at the Pan American Games, Torres explained between cheers for her son. "I save the USA stuff for the finals," she said. "Also, I haven't been able to go into his room to take his stuff to wear."
Torres will wear the USA shirt Wednesday, when her son, who has been called the next Greg Louganis, competes in the finals of the 10-meter platform. Ruiz won the top seed in Monday's preliminaries; he will be the second seed in Thursday's three-meter springboard final.
At the U.S. spring national diving championships in April, Ruiz won all three titles (one-meter springboard, three-meter springboard and 10-meter platform), becoming the first male to accomplish that feat since Louganis did so in 1988.
Ruiz also won the men's synchronized platform gold medal at the national championships, with partner Justin Dumais, making him the most heavily decorated athlete in U.S. Diving nationals history. It is those kinds of results--at age 20, he has won 10 national titles--that lead to the comparisons to Louganis.
"I feel honored to be compared to Greg Louganis," Ruiz said. "But at the same time, I want to make a name for myself."
Ruiz is starting to do that. Russ Bertram, the U.S. Diving team leader at the Pan Am Games, says Ruiz is as talented as Louganis, but points out that the divers have very different styles.
"Greg was very graceful, and as aesthetic a diver as you can be. Mark is faster, and more dynamic," said Bertram, a five-time national diving champion. "I think that Greg really enjoyed the artistry; he always tried to see how beautiful he could make a dive. Mark's edge is his competitive spirit, his burning desire to win. Both are great foundations to build on."
Ruiz's edge also comes from his passion for the sport, which started at an early age. Ruiz grew up in Toa Alta, a town in Puerto Rico that was so small there was no public pool, according to Torres. So when Ruiz was 3, Torres used to take him to a local hotel and pretend to be a tourist so that Ruiz could use the pool.
"I was trying to make a swimmer out of him," Torres said. "But he was born to be a diver. Even when he didn't know what diving was, he always liked to jump into the water. . . . In Puerto Rico, you have to try out [to join a diving program]. What they make you do is jump from the 10-meter platform. Mark was 4 1/2 years old, and he did it, no questions asked."
When Ruiz was 12, he and Torres moved to Orlando so that he could train with Team Orlando and coach Jeff Shaffer. Both mother and son say it was a hard decision, but agree that it was the best decision.
"I'm like my son; we have positive attitudes about ourselves," said Torres, who owns a hair salon called All About Hair in Orlando. "I was not afraid of finding a job. We made it. It was all worthwhile."
Each made sacrifices. Torres left behind her two oldest children, John (now 28) and Gisselle (24), as well as a salon she had owned for 18 years.
Ruiz left his friends, and ultimately decided to compete for the United States rather than Puerto Rico. Had Ruiz chosen to compete for Puerto Rico, he most likely would be heading to his second Olympics next year in Sydney. Instead, Ruiz will attempt to qualify for his first Olympic team.
Moving to the United States "was the best decision. Now I get to dive for the best country in the world," Ruiz said. "I'm honored to dive for the U.S."
His next goal, outside of qualifying for the Sydney Games, is to renew interest in diving in the United States. Just as his mother leaps from her seat to cheer his good dives, Ruiz smiles when he competes and pumps his fist when he nails a good dive. The crowds respond to those emotional displays.
"Diving has always been a polite and graceful sport," Bertram said. "I like seeing an athlete like Mark, who is excited and outwardly emotional about diving. He works the crowd as well as any diver I've ever seen, and that's what diving needs. He's very attractive, and he is a happy person. He has a natural charisma that people love to see."
Like his mother, Ruiz also will save something for the finals, what he calls his "pump-fist."
"When you watch other sports, when someone does something well, they show it. I want to show it when I do a good dive. I pump my fist, and the crowd loves it," Ruiz said. "Basically, I want to do the best that I can, and get U.S. diving to the point where people like to dive, and little kids want to get into diving. The best way to do that is to win, and also to get people excited."