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Becky Ruehl's back

Courtney Kinney, post staff reporter

Becky Ruehl simply does not waste time.

She takes no breathers between dives. She just dries off, climbs the ladder and dives again.

''Slow down!'' pleads coach Charlie Casuto after an uncharacteristically bad dive at practice.

But Miss Ruehl, who finished one place short of winning a medal when she dove in the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, doesn't have time to waste if she's going to be in shape for the Olympic trials in Seattle in June.

She nods at her coach and less than a minute later is taking off for her next dive.

This time, it's perfect.

Miss Ruehl, 21, is on her way back up after two major injuries sidelined her for the better part of two years.

A five-time Kentucky state high school champion for Villa Madonna Academy, she was fourth on the 10-meter diving platform at the 1996 Olympics and boasts four national championships.

But shoulder surgery in 1997 and a damaged nerve a year later slowed her down.

She's only been diving again for three months and didn't get back on the 10-meter platform, her specialty, until Sept. 22.

Miss Ruehl is a fifth-year senior at the University of Cincinnati and in her last year of NCAA eligibility. She already has qualified for the Olympic trials because she competed in the '96 games.

This is the last time she'll try for the Olympics, she said.

After such a long time away from her sport, the diver who has been described by her coach as ''not afraid of anything'' is a little scared to be diving again from a platform three stories off the water.

''But only enough to make me pay attention,'' Miss Ruehl said.

''I'm just so happy to be back up there,'' she added. ''That's the one I love the most.''

It's also the one that hurts her arm the most, Casuto said.

From the 10-meter platform, a diver hits the water at 33 mph. The arms absorb all the impact.

But Miss Ruehl said that her shoulder has felt fine so far and that the injuries have not affected her dives technically.

She still has a strong toe-point; still displays good diving form and makes very little splash.

The only physical reminder of her injuries is a 3-inch-long surgical scar on her right shoulder. Casuto said she's fine as long as her shoulder holds out.

Miss Ruehl expects to be able to compete at UC's first meet Oct. 29.

When she first started diving with the Cincinnati Stingrays, a local club team, Miss Ruehl was a 7-year-old gymnast from Lakeside Park.

She walked into Casuto's pool for her first practice, Cabbage Patch doll under her arm, and refused to get into the water.

Once she did, she says, she wasn't any good.

Casuto called her ''spaghetti legs'' because she couldn't keep them together.

But she stuck with it, and, by the time she entered high school at Villa Madonna, she had won her first state championship.

Casuto realized she had a shot at the Olympics when she was 14 and competing in her first Senior Nationals. Miss Ruehl said making the Olympics was her goal, but not her reason for diving.

No one thought, though, that it would happen in 1996.

Miss Ruehl, then 18, didn't let the pressure of being at the Olympics get to her. She was just nervous enough to make her concentrate.

Diving there, she said, was just like practice, except that she had to wait 30 minutes between dives.

Miss Ruehl - who has an insatiable appetite for books - read Jane Austen's ''Persuasion'' during the meet while others dove, practiced or fretted. Reading helps to take her mind off her next dive.

Miss Ruehl nailed all five dives in Atlanta but was knocked out of medal contention by her teammate, Mary Ellen Clark, then 33, who won the bronze.

It didn't bother Miss Ruehl, though. She said she was glad her teammate got the medal because it was Ms. Clark's last Olympics.

And, she pointed out, her own goal had been to make the finals, and she had already done that.

Casuto said he was impressed with how Miss Ruehl, who was just out of her freshman year at UC, handled herself at the Olympics.

''She enjoyed herself there,'' Casuto said. ''She didn't feel like the weight of the world was on her shoulders; she didn't cry when she did something wrong.''

Miss Ruehl performed her best dives ever in front of the 15,000 fans, including 70 friends and relatives, at the Georgia Tech Aquatic Center.

But it was being at the Olympics, representing her country, that impressed her most, she said.

A year after the games, Miss Ruehl suffered a torn labrum - a tissue-like band in the shoulder socket - in her right shoulder.

The injury eventually required surgery and kept her out of the water for seven months.

Then, after a year back in the water, she suffered damage to a branch of her radial nerve, numbing her arm near her right tricep.

The damage made it almost impossible to keep that arm above her head when entering the water. The arm would collapse, pulling on her shoulder and aggravating the just-healed injury there.

Miss Ruehl was out for seven more months and wasn't sure if she could ever return to diving.

''I thought about quitting, but only because the reality of it was forced in my face, not because I didn't want to dive anymore,'' she said.

Not being able to dive made her, as she put it, ''difficult to be around sometimes.''

But, if she was unhappy, she never showed it at the pool, Casuto said. Rather, she went to work.

Weight training and extensive physical therapy have strengthened her arm enough that it doesn't collapse now, he said. The numbness is still there, but doctors have assured her it isn't a problem.

Miss Ruehl has a rapid-fire diving style - she doesn't rest between dives and spends no time deliberating at the end of the board.

''She's very fast,'' Casuto said. ''In fact, if you blink, you miss her.''

But Miss Ruehl's comeback was slow.

Her arm gets tired easily, and she can't do as many dives as she used to when she's practicing.

Though she and Casuto had planned to work on some harder dives, they have decided instead to focus on perfecting three dives: an armstand somersault, an inward one-and-a-half somersault and a back two-and-a-half twister - her best dive, Casuto said.

Clare Ruehl, a nurse, credits her daughter's positive outlook to Casuto, who also has been a friend and mentor to Miss Ruehl.

''It was never about the end result. It was always about the process,'' Mrs. Ruehl said of Casuto's approach to coaching.

Casuto, 52, has been coaching for 32 years. A former UC diver himself, he stresses grades above everything else and encourages his divers to have a life outside of diving.

He doesn't have a hidebound philosophy of coaching; he tailors his style to meet the needs of each diver.

When Miss Ruehl was in the Olympics, Casuto flew from Cincinnati to Atlanta and back a few times a week to coach her and the Stingrays.

''Becky's relationship with Charlie goes much deeper than just a coach,'' Mrs. Ruehl said.

''He's been there through a lot with her.''

Their friendship, she said, is forever.

On her right hand, Miss Ruehl wears a gold Olympic ring, a gift from U.S. Diving. She never takes it off. Casuto wears one, too.

Right now, Miss Ruehl is focused more on the short-term goals she and Casuto have set than on making the 2000 Olympic team.

''It's definitely a goal, but it's a remote goal,'' she said.

''It would be great to go back, but it doesn't factor into my daily training.''

In the last year of a graphic design co-op, Miss Ruehl looks forward to graduating and getting a job.

If the Olympics don't work out for her, she'll have other things to do.

For now, she's just enjoying being back in the water.

Mrs. Ruehl said she loves to have her daughter telephone and say what a good diving practice she's had.

''To hear the joy in her voice - that's the best.

''It's like the Olympics all over again.'' Publication date: 10-09-99 more

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