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A winning united front

Times Staff Writer

BEIJING -- The crowd had long since filed out of the arena, most of the press was gone and it was largely quiet in the bowels of the National Aquatics Center. For a moment, then, it was easy for Mexican platform diver Tatiana Ortiz to believe it was all just a dream.

So she reached into the pocket of her sweatsuit jacket for proof.

“It’s not an illusion,” she said, fingering her bronze medal again.

Ortiz wasn’t simply being modest, because any thoughts she and synchronized diving partner Paola Espinosa had of Olympic glory might as well have been an illusion 15 months ago. Back then, the two women seemed to be at odds as much as they were on the platform, struggling to find a bond under new coach Ma Jin.

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Tuesday, however, they gave Mexico its first medal of the Beijing Games, finishing behind China’s Wang Xin and Chen Ruolin and Australia’s Briony Cole and Melissa Wu in the women’s 10-meter synchronized diving.

U.S. teenagers Haley Ishimatsu of Seal Beach and Mary Beth Dunnichay of Elwood, Ind. -- at 15, the youngest Americans in Beijing -- nailed their final dive to jump three places to fifth in the final standings, but finished a distant 21 points behind the Mexicans.

“I don’t have the words to describe this moment,” said Espinosa, who carried Mexico’s flag in the opening ceremony. “I’m an Olympic medalist.”

Truth is, Espinosa carried more than just the Mexican flag into these Games. With former world champion sprinter Ana Guevara, the flag-bearer in 2004, retired, Espinosa found herself carrying much of her country’s Olympic expectations as well. And though she tried to deflect the pressure, Espinosa admitted she couldn’t ignore it.

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So Tuesday’s outcome lifted a huge weight off her shoulders, with the individual platform competition slated for next week.

“At the start we were a little nervous,” she said. “Now we can go forward much more relaxed.”

Ortiz agreed.

Any individual “result for me will be the best,” Ortiz said. “I have a medal and nothing can tarnish that.”

In the 2004 Athens Olympics, Espinosa and then-partner Jashia Luna narrowly missed winning one of those, finishing fifth. But the pair separated after placing seventh in last year’s world championships, leaving Espinosa, 22, little time to break in a new partner before Beijing.

She was eventually teamed with Ortiz, a springboard diver two years older but less experienced internationally.

“When we were first paired as team, we really weren’t that secure,” Ortiz said. “We were still talking about changing partners and stuff like that. But the more we talked, the more solid we got as a pair.

“She’s my first friend, my confidant. And she’s the person I most want to share this with.”

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Credit Ma -- a Beijing native who began coaching some of Mexico’s top divers five years ago -- with making that happen despite the rocky start to the pairing.

“I have to thank my coach,” Espinosa said. “Because of her we have this third place in our hands. She believed in us. She’s the one that made us” a team.

Espinosa and Ortiz actually got off to a slow start Tuesday and were last after two dives. But their scores were second only to the Chinese duo over the final three dives, the most difficult of the competition.

“It’s my first Olympic Games, it’s my first event and I won a medal. I feel very fortunate,” Ortiz said. “I know that there are people that work very hard, that come to the Olympics and never get to do what I’ve just done. For that I feel doubly fortunate.”

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kevin.baxter@latimes.com


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