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Mitchell Is Getting Both Older, Better : Silver Medalist Has Done It All, So Why Doesn’t She Retire?

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

The history of Olympic medalists tells us it is time for Michele Mitchell to move on.

At age 23, she is too old for this sort of child’s play. She should step from the platform that is suspended three stories above the ground and come down to earth. Join the real word, get a real job . . .

People have delivered that message to her in concise terms that should leave no room for doubt.

Michele Mitchell hears none of it.

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If she does trouble herself to listen, it is only because she is driven to disprove her skeptics. Just as she did a year ago, when she recovered from a shoulder injury that might have ended her career, and went on to destroy the American women’s platform diving record at the Olympic trials. And went on from there to win a silver medal in Los Angeles.

“The Olympics was the start, rather than the end of a career for me,” she said. “I’ve been diving more and harder than ever before. A lot of people say, ‘You went to the Olympics. You won a silver medal. What more do you have to do?’ If I was an insurance agent and I sold a million-dollar account, it doesn’t mean I’m going to retire. It just means I’ve learned something.”

It means also that female divers around the world are learning something as well. Very quickly, they are coming to the frustrating realization that, perhaps, it is best to strive to be No. 2, to concede that Mitchell may well be untouchable. At least until she retires. And that isn’t happening anytime soon. They wish she would have listened to those who told her to quit while she was ahead. Because now she is even further ahead.

Saturday, in the first day of a dual meet between the Mission Viejo Nadadores and the Mexican national team at Marguerite Recreation Center, Mitchell, the latest all-world product of Ron O’Brien’s diving factory, continued to terrorize her opponents. Not that her victory was that easy. She defeated her teammate, Wendy Williams, by just .7 of a point. What was scary was that the event was the 3-meter springboard, and that is not Mitchell’s strong suit. Ten-meter diving will be held today.

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She has won every major 10-meter competition she has entered in 1985. Unbeaten in platform in her last six meets, she fortified her grip on the event in April when she won the FINA World Cup in Shanghai, China. There, she defeated Olympic gold medalist Zhou Jihong, as well as the Russian and East German divers, who were no-shows last summer in Los Angeles.

If any question was left about Mitchell’s ability, it was erased in the following weeks, when she again beat the Chinese at a meet in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., then did the same in a dual meet against the Chinese in Orlando, Fla. It was there that Mitchell broke her own American record, scoring 479.04 points. On her most difficult dive, an inward 3 1/2 tuck, she got scores of 10, 9, 10, 9 and 10 to gain more points on a single dive than any female diver ever has.

“She has gotten tremendously better since the Olympic Games,” O’Brien said. “She’s just continuing to move away from the rest of the field.”

Do not bother to ask O’Brien if Mitchell is currently the best female platform diver in the world. It is the wrong question.

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“She could be the best woman platform diver ever,” he said. “I don’t see anybody beating her for a long time, unless she has a bad day.”

As for Mitchell, she prefers to respond with practiced vagueness when asked of her generally accepted stature as the best at what she does. But at the same time, she gives herself away. Her Olympic heroics apparently have caused her to become wise to these queries because she straddles the line perfectly between supreme confidence--that borders on boastfulness--and complete modesty.

“That’s what they say,” she said of her reputation as No. 1. “But my philosophy in diving is that anything can happen on a given day. Things can change so fast.”

But so far that has worked only to Mitchell’s advantage. She has outdistanced the rest of the field to such an extent that O’Brien compared her with Greg Louganis, her teammate and good friend. Not in ability, but in the inability of those below her to even come close.

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“I can’t put anybody on the level of Greg Louganis,” O’Brien said. “But she’s putting a sizeable gap between her performance level and (that of) the next person.”

And there are several theories that attempt to explain why she has done it later in life than most. She grew up in Scottsdale, Ariz., graduated from the University of Arizona in 1983 and did not come to Mission Viejo to join the Nadadores until she was 21. “May 10, 1983,” she said, remembering the date fondly.

That event coincided with her first real platform training. And it also coincided with her first steps on the road to domination. So two years later, Mitchell rules the sport, and the most significant reason is O’Brien and his club.

“Coming out here, I had people to dive with,” she said. “I had competition every day in practice, and competition is motivating. Being part of a team gives you added confidence that you cannot achieve by trying to do it on you own.”

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But a shoulder injury in February of 1984, suffered during a practice dive, forced her to undergo surgery and miss seven weeks of practice. That postponed her ascent to the top, but only temporarily. She said that at the time of her injury, she did not know if she’d dive again. Now she is preparing for the World Championships in 1986, the Pan American Games in 1987 and the Olympic Games in 1988. At that time, when she considers her career complete, she finally will listen to what they’ve been telling her.

“You can call me a late bloomer if you want,” she said. “But I’m glad it’s turned out this way. I’m independent now, and I don’t have the hassle of missing school. The only disadvantage might be that the media and people in general like the pixie, the young superstar, the Mary Lou Retton. When you do it when you’re older, you don’t have that image to carry you through.

“But I don’t think it’s been a hindrance. I’m doing this for me. I’m not doing it for a college, or because mom and dad want me to. I’m not doing it for the media exposure. When I go up on that platform, I’m doing it because I want to be the best in the world.”

If that’s the case, she could retire today.

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