Thomas Finchum's stomach was churning as he climbed to the top of the 10-meter tower for the last time on a scorching Italian day.
"I could see my heart beating," he said. "I was like, 'Uh, oh, this is going to be close.'"
In the past, Finchum _ or any other American _ might have blown the dive under that sort of pressure. On Saturday, he stepped out to the edge with partner David Boudia and calmly pulled off one that was good enough for a silver medal in synchronized platform, the final diving event of the world championships.
The clutch performance capped a comeback of sorts for the Americans in a sport they once dominated.
While still in no position to challenge the Chinese for superpower status, the U.S. won four silver medals during its nine days in Rome _ the country's best showing at worlds since 1991 and second on the medals chart.
Three of the medals came in synchro, where the odds of reaching the podium are much better (there are fewer entrants than the individual events) and where the Americans have pinned their hopes of rebuilding a program that failed to win a medal of any color at the last two Olympics.
"The U.S. is in an interesting position where it can fill two or three or four good teams in each event," said Steve Foley, a native Australian who now serves as high performance director for USA Diving. "Most countries can't. They rely on one or two divers. If one of them gets injured, they've got nothing."
In Rome, Troy Dumais teamed with 16-year-old Kristian Ipsen to finish second in 3-meter synchro, and a pair of 16-year-olds, Haley Ishimatsu and Mary Beth Dunnichay, won silver in women's 10-meter. Finchum and Boudia capped off the meet by winning a tight battle with teams from Cuba and Germany to finish second on the big tower, though far behind the winning Chinese team.
That was quite a change from Beijing, where the Americans put up some strong performances, but none quite good enough to get on the podium.
"We were definitely disappointed in Beijing about not winning any medals," Boudia said. "But you could tell that we were starting to dive better and better. In another 12 months, look how much we've improved. I'm looking forward a lot to the next three years."
The American had their second straight Olympic shutout in China, coming on the heels of a dismal showing in Athens four years earlier. It was an especially bitter pill to swallow for a country that once dominated the sport, producing Greg Louganis and a host of gold medalists before the Chinese took over as the dominant country in the 1990s.
"In Beijing, we didn't quite get over the line," Foley said. "Now that we have that experience we seem to know how to get over the line. A perfect example was the men's platform. That could have gone either way. But this time, we got silver instead of fourth. That's one of those little things that happens with experience."
The Americans already bolstered their hopes by setting up national training centers and devising a more rigid selection process, which requires athletes to be able to perform the most difficult dives if they want to get on the national team.
Foley has put more emphasis on the synchronized events, believing it will bolster the medal haul and lead to improvement when a diver goes to the board alone.
"We need to play to our strengths, and it will then rub off on the other events," Foley said. "A good example was Troy Dumais. He got a silver in synchro, then he's on a high and feeling confident when he goes out there and gets a silver in his individual. I just think they go hand in hand."
Certainly, the numbers are more favorable in synchro _ especially at the Olympics, where only eight teams qualify in a finals-only format.
"You've got a 37.5 percent chance of a medal. We're just being smart and targeting that," Foley said. "But we've got a lot of class divers. It's just a matter of time before a couple of them step up and win individual medals."
Dumais, a three-time Olympian and oldest member of the team at 29, was the only U.S. diver to capture an individual medal at Beijing, finishing second on the 3-meter springboard. It's clear the Americans still have a lot of room for improvement in those events.
Several divers _ Ishimatsu, Brittany Viola, Terry Horner, Nick McCrory _ failed to get past the preliminaries or semifinals when competing individually.
But even there, the Americans had cause to be encouraged. Boudia and Chris Colwill both had top-10 showings on the men's side. Eighteen-year-old Ariel Rittenhouse was a surprising fifth in 3-meter, while Christina Loukas was eighth in both springboard events.
"The signs are there that it's coming," Foley said. "We may see it happen in 2012."
He doesn't want to set the bar too high, not after what happened at the last two Olympics.
"It does take time," Foley said. "What we need to do now is just go and get one, and then two, try to build back up. We don't need to try to leap back up and get six medals'. I you try to get six, chances are you'll get none. Aim small. Aim for one, and we might get two."