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Medal hopes spring up, down for American diver Ovenhouse 5th, but passes personal test


BARCELONA, Spain -- She came out of nowhere, and returned to nowhere fast. Julie Ovenhouse rocketed from 11th place to second, then slipped to fifth. Two dives sent her medal hopes soaring. Two more took them away.

Ovenhouse, 23, ended a four-month retirement to compete in these Olympics, drove 120 miles each day for training, put a strain on her marriage. In the end, yesterday amounted to a bitter disappointment, so why she was smiling?

She finished fifth all right, fifth in the women's 3-meter springboard, won by defending gold medalist Gao Min of China. But afterward, Ovenhouse took comfort in her quest, in finding the answers she sought right down to her final dive.

"I knew I had missed the dive, but I didn't regret it," said Ovenhouse, who had dropped from second to fourth place entering the final round. "If I had not gone so hard and missed it, then I would have regretted it."

The final dive was an inward 2 1/2 somersault, and Ovenhouse liked her start, her height, her motion -- everything until she hit the water. It turned out she over-rotated, and her score of 34.83 points was the second lowest of her 10 dives.

Ovenhouse had scored 62.16 and 69.60 in the seventh and eighth rounds to jump from 11th to second, but wound up getting passed by the Unified Team's Irina Lachko, Germany's Brita Baldus and Czechoslovakia's Heidemarie Bartova.

"She went after it, which is the best thing to do," U.S. men's diver Kent Ferguson said. "As an athlete, you want to be aggressive. She was just a little bit too pumped up. She had a hard time stopping it."

Interesting choice of words, for Ovenhouse has had a hard time stopping, period. She retired briefly after graduating from Michigan State in 1991, but decided to return to the sport after watching the U.S. Olympic Festival on television that July.

Never mind that she already started a career as a field investigator for an insurance company. Ovenhouse woke at 5 a.m. for practice, then went to work, then practiced again. By the time she returned home to Howell, Mich., at 8:30 p.m., she'd be exhausted.

"It was great for her, bad for me," said her husband, Todd. "I can't say it hasn't been hard on us. A lot of times, it was almost too much for us to handle."

Ovenhouse agreed she wasn't exactly a socialite wife -- "It was like, 'Hi, honey, I'm home, good night'" -- but she knew she made the right decision the moment she returned to the pool. "Even if I didn't make the [Olympic] team," she said, "I needed an answer."

The question, of course, concerned her potential. Ovenhouse won the NCAA 3-meter championship in 1991 and finished seventh at the world championships, but like so many athletes, divers consider the Olympics the ultimate test.

Yesterday, Ovenhouse took that test. She said she didn't watch the scoreboard, but the largely American crowd "gave it a little bit away."

With one dive left, she finally looked. She knew she needed to score big.

"She went for it," Todd said. "She didn't sit back and try to hang on for a spot. She was going for it, and she stayed too close to the board. That takes guts, to do that."

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