Shortly after Jeff Rouse was inducted into the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame in 2011, he started campaigning to have his fellow Stafford County Olympian, Mark Lenzi, join him.
It took a while, but Lenzi was posthumously named to the hall’s 2019 class on Tuesday. The 1992 Olympic 3-meter diving champion will be part of an eight-person class that will be inducted on April 6, 2019 at the hall in Virginia Beach.
“This is something he deserves,” said Rouse, a three-time Olympic gold medal swimmer who was on Olympic teams with Lenzi in 1992 and ‘96.
Lenzi, a 1986 Stafford High School graduate, gave up a promising wrestling career to take up diving after watching Greg Louganis win diving gold at the 1984 Olympics. With no previous experience, he began training in Northern Virginia and earned a scholarship to Indiana University, where he blossomed into a two-time NCAA champion under veteran coach Hobie Billingsley.
“His father was not happy about that, but it didn’t bother me,” said his mother, Ellie Lenzi. “He made a wise decision. You’ve got to go with what you’re interested in.”
Born on July 4, 1968, Lenzi stood just 5 feet, 4 inches, but was fearless on the board and capable of spinning faster than his rivals. He dominated the 3-meter competition to win gold in Barcelona in 1992.
He retired after those games, but grew restless, shed weight and returned to earn a spot on the 1996 U.S. team with a nearly flawless dive on his final attempt at the U.S. Olympic trials in Indianapolis. He went on to win bronze in Atlanta.
“The diving world has never seen anything like him, and probably never will,” Olympic teammate Scott Donie said in 2012. “He came from out of nowhere, and in three years, he was World Cup champion. That’s unheard of. And within six years, he won the Olympics. It was unbelievable.”
Lenzi remains the last American man to win an Olympic medal in springboard diving. David Bourdia took gold in 2012 and bronze in 2016 on the 10-meter platform.
“It was surreal and incredible what he was able to do,” Rouse said. “Mark was incredibly competitive and confident. Generally, if he set his mind to doing something in the diving well, he was going to get there and do it.”
Lenzi died in 2012 at age 43. He will become the hall’s fifth inductee with Fredericksburg ties, joining Rouse; former Baltimore Orioles outfielder Al Bumbry; Stuart Hoskins, a four-sport athlete at the University of Richmond in the 1930s; and George “Gummy” Proctor, a former college coach, athletic director and game official.
Other members of the 2019 class are retired football stars Heath Miller, Ruben Brown and “Buster” O’Brien; former NASCAR driver Jeff Burton; ex-Old Dominion women’s basketball coach Wendy Larry; retired Colonial Athletic Association commissioner Tom Yeager; and former sports writer Debbie White.
Honorees are chosen by a honors court of college administrators, media members and past inductees. Hall director Eddie Webb said the criteria were tweaked two years ago to automatically include one athlete who competed internationally in each year’s class.
“When you look at his body of work, not just in the Olympics but at Indiana, he was as good as there was—not only in Virginia but in the country,” Webb said. “He took it to another level. That’s what the Hall of Fame does. It honors the cream of the crop.”