Trailing by 3 points with a dive to go, Greg Louganis stood on the 10-meter platform, looking scared and alone.
Was it an act? After all, Louganis has studied acting 10 years and is not unaware of the theatrical potential of the diving venue. He certainly knew he was on TV.
But the nervousness looked real. He rubbed his hands through his hair, he massaged his face, he rubbed his hands together like a street-corner craps shooter.
What was Louganis telling us? Hit and run? Swing away?
Here he was, about to perform something called the Dive of Death, in which his head would spin past the concrete platform at about 70 miles per hour, and he looked like a kid approaching the front door on his first date.
You kept waiting for his coach, Ron Bryant, to run out with a bullhorn and yell up to Greg: "Come on down before you hurt yourself, son. We all love you. Don't do this to yourself."
But nobody stopped him and Louganis threw himself off the platform, and traced through the air a 2-second work of art. He signed it with a tiny splish, bounded out of the pool and waited for the judges to punch in the scores that would give him his second gold medal of the Games.
Actually the splish was more like a ka-sploosh. Louganis is a refrigerator compared to the kid he had to beat, 14-year-old Ni Xiong of China, a wisp of a lad who barely ripples the water.
"Greg could've gotten in with less splash (on his final dive)," Bryant said when asked where the last dive fell short of perfection."
As a further handicap, Greg was without his best pal, his stuffed teddy bear, Gar. Remember Gar, who has been wearing a bandage over the boo-boo on the top of his head, just like Greg? Gar hit his head on the springboard during the teddy bear 2-centimeter competition.
Louganis often talks to Gar back stage before a big dive, but the furry sidekick was recently shipped to Childrens Hospital of Orange County, to be by the side of a kid whose appendix had ruptured.
And Greg needed some calming down before that last dive.
"I tried to relax, to get my heart rate down," Louganis said. "My heart was racing outside my chest, it felt like it was beating 2 feet outside my chest."
Greg listened to his Walkman stereo, listened to Bryant tell him to be mellow, and resorted to a favorite calm-down gimmick. Louganis told himself that his mother would still love him if he lost.
But wouldn't she be a little ticked off if Greg let a 14-year-old Olympic rookie beat him in the competition that would put the perfect cap on his amazing career?
And how does a guy who talks to his teddy bear and calls on a spiritual assist from his mom turn out to be maybe the most mentally tough athlete of the Olympics Games?
That's one of life's mysteries.
Louganis seems to thrive on worry. He not only talks about defeat, he almost seems to expect it. He has said: "I don't have any problem with getting beat. I'd be proud to get beat by someone I deserve to get beat by."
Preparing himself for the worst, vaguely aware he was trailing and needed a near-perfect dive, heart pounding out of his chest, he turned in his coolest dive of the afternoon.
Jerry West used to fall asleep before big games. Every Mr. Clutch has his own style.
There is no way to diminish the beauty and strength of what might be Louganis' farewell big-time performance.
He won the gold and he did it unaided by steroids, side bets or Disneyland contracts. At age 28, gray hair barely held in check by black dye, weight barely held in check by a no-ice-cream diet, Louganis won his biggest medal ever, the one that cements his name into diving history forever.
He is the greatest.
In the past he has typically won by huge margins. This time he won by the width of a whisker on the chin of Xiong Ni, who seemed honored to have been beaten by his idol, the man who was winning Olympic medals almost before Xiong was born.
If Xiong was too young to win, Louganis was probably too old at 28, having struggled through 12 years of international competition and oft-told personal problems.
Old golfers get the yips. Old baseball players can't get around on the fastball. What do old divers do? Louganis hasn't found out yet.
He stood over the equivalent of a 20-foot downhill putt on the 18th green at Augusta, and drilled the center of the cup.
Do the Olympics have a better champion this year? Is there anyone whose consistency over the years is more amazing, who came through under such pressure, with such grace?
"I have a good kinesthetic awareness," Louganis has said in trying to explain his diving success. "I am aware of where I am in space."
And there he was Tuesday afternoon, high above the water, high above the crowd, leaping into the air and spinning. Suddenly he knew where he was: At the top, the best ever.
It must have been a great ride down.