Gophers diver Kelci Bryant aims to turn fear into perfection

  • Article by: JIM SOUHAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 29, 2012 - 12:00 AM

The Gophers diver showed the nerve of a daredevil at an early age.

Kelci Bryant at the U.S. Olympic diving trials in June.

Photo: Elaine Thompson, Associated Press - Ap

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Kelci Bryant talks about water the way most people talk about felons. The Gophers diver describes how it assaults her skin and twists her limbs, and she has a much better relationship with water than the woman who introduced her to it does.

Kelci's mother, Kathie, fell off a boat when she was young and almost drowned. Kathie didn't shield her children from the water. She tossed them in.

"My goal was that if my kids fell off a boat in the middle of a lake, that they would be able to swim to shore," Kathie said.

Years later, Kelci has forged a new relationship with water. She tries to disturb it as little as possible upon entry. Four years after finishing fourth in the 3-meter synchronized diving in the Beijing Olympics, Bryant intends to win a medal in London while her mother watches wearing T-shirts she designed. Competition begins at 9 a.m. Twin Cities time Sunday.

"Taking your ultimate fear and turning it into perfection is the best thing in the world," Kelci said. "There's always the chance of hitting the water wrong. It can give you welts. It stings. It can do some damage. But overcoming all of that is so rewarding. That's what I love about it."

Having protected her daughter from drowning, Kathie might have wanted to consider bubble-wrap to protect her from everything else. Kelci thought of danger the way most kids think of sugar. She hinted at her talent when she was about 3 by vaulting over the family couch.

"It was very scary," Kathie said. "I thought, 'I have to get her into a gym so she can do it correctly and not break her neck.' That's how she started in gymnastics, and she switched to diving in sixth grade."

Each of Kathie's five children was athletic, and one of her older sisters, Katie Beth, was a champion diver at the University of Miami. Kelci, too, figured out how to enter the water like a cat burglar.

Kelci was 8 when she found herself hanging out at the pool, waiting for her sister's practice to end, when she decided that she should be able to execute inward dives -- the ones that bring a diver's forehead into close proximity with the platform.

"She was throwing a fit because she couldn't do an inward dive," Kathie said. "She was stomping and crying. I said, 'Fine, we'll go to St. Louis.' "

The family lived near Springfield, Ill. St. Louis was 100 miles away. Kathie figured that if Kelci was going to dive, she was going to learn proper form on a 3-meter board in the USA diving program.

During their travels, Kathie and Kelci met a gifted coach named Wenbo Chen, now the University of Minnesota diving coach. Chen tried to talk Kathie into moving to Georgia so Kelci could train with him. Kathie didn't think that was sensible.

When Chen became the coach at Purdue, Kathie continually asked him to coach Kelci, and he refused. Finally, Chen began a lessons program and accepted Kelci as a student.

Chen later took a job at the USA training center in Indianapolis. Kathie had moved Kelci into an apartment near Purdue; now she would be commuting from her temporary apartment to Indianapolis. "It got a little comical," Kathie said. "One year I bought a brand-new car, and at the end of one calendar year I had put 52,000 miles on it."

Kelci thrived, and enrolled at the University of Miami. After one semester, she left to follow Chen, who had just taken the job at Minnesota.

She has won two NCAA titles for the Gophers but took a sabbatical in 2011-12 to concentrate on the Olympics. Bryant and teammate Abby Johnston won the 3-meter event at the Olympic trials.

"Obviously, I'd follow Chen anywhere," Bryant said. "I've been with him for so long. Even before he took a college job, he encouraged me to experience college and compete for NCAA championships. Being at Minnesota has been the biggest learning experience of my life. I've learned how to compete for a team and not just as an individual, and I had never had that before. I wouldn't change a thing."

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