U's Bryant, Duke's Johnston win diving silver for U.S.

  • Article by: RACHEL BLOUNT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 30, 2012 - 12:46 PM

Kelci Bryant and Abby Johnston focused on the task -- not the tally -- and ended a long U.S. diving drought.

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LONDON - It would have been so tempting to take a peek at the scoreboard. Kelci Bryant, though, knew how dangerous that can be.

The Gophers diver looked at the standings during the 2008 Olympics, when she and her synchronized diving partner were tied for third with one dive to go. The added pressure weighed too heavily on her, and they ended up off the medal stand in fourth place.

On Sunday, Bryant was determined to block out everything around her in her second Olympics, relying solely on the years of work she and partner Abby Johnston had put in.

She finally looked up after their fifth and final dive to see them in second place. After Canada failed to pass them on its last dive, Bryant put her hands over her face and let the tears flow in London's Aquatics Centre. She and Johnston were Olympic silver medalists, earning the first U.S. Olympic medal ever in synchronized diving and breaking an American medal drought in her sport that stretched back to 2000.

China retained its stranglehold on Olympic diving, as Wu Minxia and He Zi won gold with 346.20 points. Bryant, 23, and Johnston, 22, finished with 321.90 points, and Canada's Emilie Heymans and Jennifer Abel took bronze with 316.80.

In her two seasons with the Gophers, Bryant won NCAA championships in 1-meter and 3-meter diving. The native of Chatham, Ill., took last season off to concentrate solely on the Olympics with Johnston. Together, they won the first Olympic diving medal for the U.S. since Laura Wilkinson earned gold on the 10-meter platform at the Sydney Games 12 years ago.

"I wasn't watching the scoreboard, because I made that mistake in 2008," said Bryant, who followed longtime coach Wenbo Chen to Minnesota when he became the Gophers diving coach in 2009. "This time, I just wanted to go in with a clean slate and know that no matter whether there's a medal or not, we have to hit our dives.

"It's amazing. It's a lot of hard work; it's four years of training for an unknown. It's scary, and it's hard. Abby and I just stuck by each other's side and worked our butts off. We made it happen."

Johnston, an Ohio native, dives for Duke. She and Bryant began diving together in 2010 but did not make their partnership exclusive until last fall. Since then, they have frequently met up in Minneapolis or Durham, N.C., to train.

They have won five medals in six international competitions, none bigger than this one. The pair remained in second place behind the Chinese throughout the event. On their first dive, an excited Chen jumped out of his seat and pumped his fists in the air.

Bryant and Johnston did not let their emotions run that high. They allowed themselves only a few slight smiles and paid no heed to Wu and He, who exemplified the mirrorlike precision that has made China the dominant world power in diving.

They appeared slightly anxious after their final dive -- a back 2 1/2 somersault in pike position, which scored 72 points -- until the Canadian team fell out of synch on its last dive, ensuring Bryant and Johnston the silver.

At the Olympic trials last month, Johnston and Bryant won the lone U.S. Olympic berth in their event by only .42 points, a good test of their nerves heading into the Games. "That gave us the confidence to know we can hit the dives in a high-pressure situation,'' Johnston said. "We were pretty steady throughout, just having fun and enjoying ourselves. I have all the faith in the world that Kelci is going to hit her dives, and I know she has faith in me that I'm going to hit mine."

When she began diving at age 8, Bryant traveled 100 miles each way to train in St. Louis. She moved to Indiana as a teen so she could train with Chen, then the coach at Purdue. Her parents, Randy and Kathie, have been as committed as Kelci has, ensuring she had everything she needed to succeed.

They were in the stands Sunday, along with Bryant's boyfriend and some of her siblings. At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Bryant and partner Ariel Rittenhouse missed the bronze medal by 4.5 points. This time, she kept her eyes off the scoreboard and on the prize.

Sunday night, she was wearing it around her neck, as proud to have won it for American diving as she was to win it for herself.

"Since Abby and I got a medal on the first day of [the diving] competition, it sets a good tone,'' she said. "Everyone is going to know we can do it. The whole curse is out of the way."

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