It Hasn't Exactly Been a Model Life for Wendy Williams : Diving: She left her family at 14 to come to Mission Viejo and eventually won a bronze medal at Seoul, but she never felt that good about taking the plunge.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Wendy Lian Williams is 22, but she feels much older.

"I was watching the Miss Universe pageant the other night," she said, "and I started thinking about all the times I watched it as a kid. I was awed by all the beautiful women then. Now, I'm awed by all the beautiful girls ."

Williams, too, is one of the beautiful ones, which is worth mentioning only because it has opened the doors to a modeling career that allows her to continue her bid to remain one of the world's best divers.

Her latest gig resulted in an ad for a swimsuit line that's running in the current issues of Glamour and Cosmopolitan as well as other magazines. Williams' body is painted like the clouds-and-sky background, highlighting the suit as she seemingly floats in the air, her face to the heavens, her back arching toward earth.

The ad creates the intended eye-catching effect, and its text unintentionally captures the essence of Williams' diving career, a tumbling dream of confused images:

She wants to cry, but knows she must not. She's so enraptured, it's as if electricity is coursing through her body. Then she's crying again, but she's not sure why.

Wendy Lian Williams feels old, but not because she has traveled throughout the world while winning a world championship and an NCAA title and a bronze medal in the Olympic Games.

It's just that when you stop and reflect on the emotional torment and the highs and lows she has experienced in the past decade, well, it's enough to leave almost anyone drained.

Anyone except maybe Williams, who outwardly displays enough verve to supply a legion of cheerleaders. She can recite her personal great depressions with matter-of-fact perspective and sum it all up: "Oh, but what a learning experience. It's sort of a broader sense of knowledge that's stored away for the rest of my life and will help me get through other hard times."

Williams, the NCAA women's diver of the year in 1989, gave up her senior year of eligibility at the University of Miami when she decided to accept a number of endorsement offers last spring. But that was just one line in a string of mini-retirements on Williams' resume.

Last month, she moved to Laguna Beach and is now training with Mission Viejo Nadadores Coach Janet Ely-Lagourgue, who competed in both the 1972 and '76 Olympics. Thursday, Williams embarked on yet another mini-comeback, placing second in the semifinals of the platform event at the U.S. Indoor Diving Championships in Beaverton, Ore. The finals are Sunday.

"I feel so good about the move," Williams said. "I found an apartment that is exactly the place I want to be, and Janet and I have this really great rapport. I'm so happy now."

Even with this everything's-hunky-dory approach, there's a trace of doubt in Williams' voice. No one knows better how easy it is to lose focus on the positive and how fleeting a sense of well-being can be.

Ely-Lagourgue said: "When Scott (Reich, the former Miami diving coach) resigned and left the sport (last May), I spoke with Wendy with the intention of trying to talk her into staying at Miami, but she was scrutinizing everything with a fear factor. She was a veteran athlete who felt as if the rug had been pulled out from under her and she was not able to adjust.

"She was just too depressed at that point. She didn't feel she would ever get herself out of the dumps, so I think the change of scenery has helped. She's training well, but her confidence is still sagging. There's a great deal of pressure on an accomplished athlete to stay on top, and a lot of factors have blinded her from seeing that she can be better than ever."

So, yet again, Williams is standing 30 feet above a pool, waging war with her fears and self-doubts, and taking the inevitable plunge.

"You've got to be willing to fail," Ely-Lagourgue reminds her newest charge. "It's like that with a dive, or a workout, or a relationship with a man. You've got to decide to let go and take a chance."

Williams' story is not really a sad one, though. Indeed, it's a story of accomplishment and glory, of a young girl's determination and courage, and of a young woman's battle to discover who she is and who she wants to be.

A little girl lay in her bed in Bridgeton, Mo., fantasizing about winning a gold medal in the Olympics. And then she would start to cry.

"I had so much motivation then, but I didn't know what to do with it," Williams said.

She began diving as a 3-year-old who tagged along with an older sister to workouts. Her father, Charles, was her coach during her pre-teen years and he made up in dedication what he lacked in technical expertise. He would come home from work, eat dinner and then drive an hour to a St. Louis pool, where Wendy would faithfully work out for 2 1/2 hours.

Most nights, they were the only ones in the complex.

Williams said those hours she spent alone with her dad were some of the best of her life, but it was a period that both knew would come to an end.

"I was diving with (University of Michigan Coach) Dick Kimble in the summer, and it got to the point where my dad and I both knew (my dad) didn't know what to do for me anymore," she said. "I'd dive, and he'd say, 'What would Dick say about that dive?' And I'd say, 'I don't know, Dad. I can't see it. That's what coaches are for.' "

So Williams, at 14, made what she says was a not-so-difficult decision to leave home and move halfway across the country to live with new families and train with Ron O'Brien, then the Mission Viejo coach.

"I sort of felt like I was smothering back home," she said. "It was kind of like torture. I mean here was a board, here was a pool, but there was no one to help me improve. And I had so much drive.

"I wanted to dive so badly. I wanted it so bad. People said, 'Don't do it. Don't leave your family. You'll be lonely. You'll get burned out. You'll be sorry.'

"And they were all right."

Williams lived with four host families in Mission Viejo, staying about one year with each.

"The first two families, well, I was so young and it was just a very different life style than the way I was brought up," she said. "I have three sisters, all of whom are 10 to 15 years older, and I got a lot of attention. Moving was a very tough adjustment. I missed the guidance of my family.

"There were times when I was so lost and so lonely and I couldn't even tell my parents because they'd say, 'Well, you better come home then.' So I used to fight back the tears on the phone because I wanted to dive."

Ask Williams if, looking back now, it was worth it, and she responds emphatically, "Yes." But when faced with the next inevitable question, she pauses and sighs.

"If I had a son or daughter that wanted to do that, I don't know if I could let them go. I don't think I could let them go."

From the first day she climbed the ladder and managed to push herself off the edge of the tower, it was obvious that Williams had the physical potential to make her mark as a platform diver.

But there has always been a question--at least in her mind--as to whether or not she possessed the necessary mental tenacity.

"I always felt the tower was bigger than me," she said. "I was always afraid of it and I always felt I was more afraid of it than everyone else.

"Ron (O'Brien) was trying to teach me a new dive, and I was just too scared to try it. I was really distraught after climbing down and said I was quitting platform. Ron took me into his office and said, 'Forget the dive but don't quit tower. It's your ticket to the Olympics.' "

And every time she attempted to abandon her career as a platform diver, she heard the same argument. So she persevered.

Then, in the summer of 1988, all the work--not to mention mental anguish--paid a big dividend: Williams won a bronze medal in the 10-meter event at the Olympic Games in Seoul.

It's hard to find an athlete who has been competing since his or her early teens who can't isolate a period that can be labeled, "Burnout."

Williams' 'B-Word' file is rather large. But for her, it hit just after her senior year at Mission Viejo High School and lasted nearly a year.

"That summer, I went to six major meets in six weeks and then left for the World Student Games in Japan," she said. "I was so tired and I started getting lost on my dives and wiping out.

"Getting lost is usually a very occasional thing, but in a period of three weeks, I got lost 10 or 12 times, and it was playing major mental games with me. Looking back, I think it was my mind's way of saying, 'You need a rest.' "

But this was no time for the weary. The national championships were scheduled for St. Louis in the summer of 1985, and Williams was expected to return home from her four-year sabbatical in the aquatic promised land of Mission Viejo as a conquering hero.

"Everyone treated me regally," she said, "and I wanted to have a great meet so badly. Unfortunately, I was afraid of my own shadow and really just dying to quit diving altogether."

After two particularly painful wipeouts during practice, Williams spent a tearful session with a sports psychologist who suggested she take the rest of the day off, go home and relax in the warmth of family and friends.

She should have gotten a second opinion.

"I was driving home in my dad's VW bug, and the engine blew up," she said. "I was on one of those curving, connecting ramps between freeways, and the car just froze. It was a single lane, the speed limit was 55 and I knew I'd better not stay there. So, I jumped out. There was no one coming, so I started pushing the car to the side of the road. There were flames coming out the back and everything.

"I didn't realize it was sort of a downward slope, and all of sudden I couldn't stop the car. I couldn't get in to put on the brake, and it just rolled over the side into a ditch. And when it hit the bottom, it just went ka-boom into a ball of flames.

"I was just standing there bawling and shaking all over. And this was what I was supposed to do to relax."

Apparently, this is a form of shock therapy that works. Williams almost won both the platform and one-meter springboard events, placing second in each. She also took fourth on the three-meter and won the high-point award for the meet.

"I was at the lowest of lows (emotionally), and everyone kept telling me how awesome I was doing," she said, managing a giggle. "It was such an incredible conflict. I kept thinking, 'Oh my God, I'm really losing it.' "

So, with her morale sinking, Williams embarked upon her freshman year at Miami.

"I muscled through the collegiate season, but I was so miserable," she said. "I dove in the indoor nationals my freshman year and then I just couldn't take it anymore."

This time, she decided to do something about it. For six months, Williams disappeared. She didn't move far--just down the road to Deerfield Beach, Fla.--but she left no forwarding address or phone number with her coach or friends.

"I was 18 and I'd never had a job because of diving," she said. "I wanted to feel what it was like to have to struggle to support yourself."

She admits now that it didn't feel all that wonderful. She had two jobs, one as a waitress and one in a health club, and reached the enough-of-this-real-world stage by midsummer.

She went home for six weeks, the most time she had spent there in more than four years, arriving with the announcement that she was quitting diving.

"I'd been independent for a long time, but now I was 18 and I was going through that thing that 18-year-olds go through," she said. "There was a huge struggle between me and my dad, and lots of arguing because he wanted me to go back to diving. It was the first time I ever felt like he was pushing me.

"I really love the water and being outside, and I (finally) decided that since I'd put this much into diving, it was pretty silly to have to pay for school. So, I decided to go back and just dive collegiately."

With the pressure to be a world-beater removed, Williams rediscovered the joy of tumbling weightless through space, the feeling that had drawn her to the sport as a toddler.

"I didn't have to be perfect anymore and I started diving better than ever," she said.

Her father died in 1987, a loss she says she will never get over.

Then came a heady couple of years. She won Olympic bronze in '88--"It was too bad Dad couldn't have been there, but I figure he had the best seat in the house and I had a special guardian angel"--and there was a world championship and an NCAA title in '89.

Then Reich retired, and everything that had finally fallen into place was strewn asunder.

So, she took another six-month respite, contemplating retirement all the while. But Williams is a diving survivor, and she popped back to the surface in Mission Viejo. And now she's back on her feet, though still wobbly.

"I don't want to set any goals now because when I set goals I get too caught up in winning," she said. "Sure, it would be wonderful to go back to the Olympics and win a gold, but I think if I set those kinds of goals, I'd lose track of what's happening today and how to have a good time.

"I just don't want to get to the point again where I forget how much I love diving."

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