U.S. divers won't be getting any medals at these Olympics - a stunning result for a country that used to rule the boards.
The first shutout in 92 years was assured when Caesar Garcia and Kyle Prandi failed to advance out of the 10-meter platform preliminaries Friday.
Now comes the job of figuring out what went wrong.
"It is a surprise and it's been a difficult games for USA Diving," team leader Russ Bertram said. "We've struggled internationally for a while."
The slowdown started in 1996, when the Americans earned only a couple of bronzes in Atlanta. Then Laura Wilkinson won a surprise gold four years ago,
the only diving medal captured in Sydney.
This time, the highest U.S. finish was a fifth by Wilkinson on 10-meter platform, with four divers - Kimiko Soldati, Justin Wilcock, Garcia and Prandi
- failing to get out of the preliminaries in their events.
"This games proved more than anything that diving is a very precarious sport," Bertram said. "There were many events that the expected outcome was not
what it was. Things can shift in a heartbeat."
The Americans' showing is arguably their worst ever. The only other time they failed to win a medal was the 1912 Stockholm Games, when there were four
diving events. In Athens, there were twice as many.
Because of IOC rules limiting the number of spots for each country, the United States wasn't able to bring its specialists in every event.
USA Diving used a new selection format this year, picking the synchro teams first. The top two divers in each individual event weren't necessarily
guaranteed a spot on the Olympic team as in previous years.
"We were under some of the most difficult constrictions ever on selection procedures," said Bertram, adding that USA Diving believed its best medal
hopes were in synchro because only eight countries competed in those events.
Troy and Justin Dumais were second going into the final round of the synchro springboard competition. China's duo was first, but amazingly scored zero
points, leaving the door open for the brothers. But they missed their tandem dive and wound up sixth.
"It was one fluke dive here and there that cost us," said Jeff Shaffer, who coaches Garcia. "Justin and Troy were right there to win the gold. It just
didn't work out."
Prandi finished third on the platform at the U.S. trials, which wouldn't have been good enough to qualify in past years. He made it this time by being
on the synchronized team, pairing with Mark Ruiz to finish last off the tower.
The United States was once the world's diving superpower, winning 41 of the 62 gold medals available between 1904 - when the sport made its Olympic
debut at St. Louis - and the 1976 Montreal Games.
The balance of power began shifting in the 1980s, despite the brilliance of Greg Louganis.
Shaffer isn't sure where to lay the blame.
"We need to find a way to compete up to the level that they always have at these meets. Honestly, I don't think it's a lack of ability," he said.
"Maybe it's just discipline, maybe we just need to be a little more dedicated to being better today than we were yesterday. We don't need to get
excited about getting 8s, when a little correction can make it a 9."
Five divers on the 11-member U.S. team - Wilkinson, Soldati, the Dumais brothers and Wilcock - train together with coach Ken Armstrong at The
Woodlands complex near Houston.
But the United States still lacks the financial backing of countries such as China, where government support allows athletes to focus on their
performances - not putting meals on the table and paying bills.
"It's difficult times when it comes to supporting our athletes in the U.S.," said Bertram, a former elite diver. "We're a small sport. The funding for
these kids is key. My hope is that we can find ways to again make these kids' daily training conducive to success, and that means more financial
Rachelle Kunkel, who finished ninth on 3-meter springboard, sandwiches her training around a 36-hour-a-week job as a labor and delivery nurse. She has
China could win its sixth diving gold of the Athens Games in men's 10-meter platform Saturday.
"When China selects their team, sometimes they leave their gold medalists home," Shaffer said. "They want to bring in younger divers, but our system
doesn't allow it."
Teenagers Thomas Finchum and Brittany Viola were left off the team, despite finishing second in their events at the trials.
"It would have been good to have them here," Shaffer said. "It would be in our best interest to really accelerate their competition schedule, so they
can get as much experience as possible before 2008."
Bertram cited Finchum's emergence as proof of U.S. efforts to identify rising talent, which can take up to seven years to pay off at the Olympics.
"We're going to surprise a lot of people next time around," Bertram said.