If not for her sister's homesickness and distaste for sports that make you sweat, or Kelci Bryant's preference for traveling - the 2008 Olympic diver from Chatham might have had a different path in life.
Kelci Bryant's exceptional success as a diver has been a combination of genes, family support, talent and decisions by two young ladies. Kelci's story begins with her older sister, Katie Beth Bryant.
When Katie Beth was young, she loved to tumble.
"I was flipping off couches and breaking furniture and threatening to run off with the circus," Katie Beth says.
Her parents, Kathie and Randy Bryant, decided gymnastics would be a great way to corral that energy, so they enrolled her. She took to it immediately. She liked doing things that looked dangerous.
"I loved scaring people," she says.
Katie Beth's success led her to gymnastics camp in Oregon the summer after fifth grade. The coaches and staff saw talent and wanted to keep her to train further. At the beginning of the summer, that's what she thought she wanted to do. By the end of the summer, she was homesick.
Katie Beth returned home and gave up gymnastics. She searched for another sport. She tried volleyball, cross country and track but didn't like being sweaty or out of breath. By this time, her younger siblings were taking swimming classes. Katie Beth would do flips off the side of the pool, and the coaches sent her to the other end to dive.
Katie Beth's talent was evident - the same skills that made her a great gymnast also made her good at diving. Bob Milnes in Springfield was her first coach. Then she traveled to Champaign to train. During her sophomore year, she began her professional diving training. Katie Beth was a five-time national champion diver and dived for the University of Miami in Florida. She wanted to go to the Olympics, but two injures derailed her dream.
Kelci Bryant watched her sister through this. Kelci also took gymnastics but has early memories of being on a diving board.
When Kelci was 6 months old, she took her first swim lessons with her mother at the YMCA. When she was still a toddler, she would jump into the pool at Edgewood Country Club in Auburn.
"The lifeguards were kind of freaked," Kathie says. "They didn't know she could swim."
By age 3, Kelci was on the diving board.
When Kelci was in first grade, she got to meet Amy Van Dyken, the first American woman to win four gold medals at one Olympic Games.
"Would you like to swim like Amy," Kathie remembers asking Kelci. "No, Mommy, I want to dive like Katie," Kelci answered.
Kelci excelled at gymnastics and diving.
"By the time Kelci had a couple of years in gymnastics, we knew there would be options. She was gaining strength and confidence and coordination," Randy says.
Before she was 10 years old, Kelci chose diving over gymnastics for a reason that had nothing to do with the water.
"I know you had to drive to gymnastics meets and you got to fly to diving meets, and I wanted to fly," Kelci says.
All of the Bryant children are gifted athletes. Kevin played baseball at Morehead State, Steve plays at Rend Lake College and Kara swam at Millikin. There was always a game or a meet or a practice to go to. Randy and Kathie had to look at more juggling of family time and resources for Kelci to make a serious commitment to diving.
The whole family was aware of Kelci's drive.
"My son, Kevin, said to me 'Mom, this is what Kelci wants to do,'" Kathie recalls. "He said, 'You've got to let her do this.'"
"Our philosophy is if the kids have the interest and skill, we will do whatever it takes to make it happen financially and with the time commitment," Randy says.
So Kelci started serious training in 1997. She trained at St. Louis, then at Illinois State, Purdue and finally at the National Training Center in Indianapolis.
At age 11, she was competing on a national level and finished fourth in one-meter platform dive and 12th in the three-meter at the Speedo National Junior Diving Championships. She won the gold medal in 2002.
Kathie realized synchronized diving was going to be important. She also knew it was difficult to find two divers who could mesh. In 2003 in Brazil at the Junior Pan Am championships, she saw Ariel Rittenhouse and talked with her mother about the possibility of the two girls becoming a team. In 2004, the girls tried it and it was immediately apparent that this could work well.
"We messed around with it, and two days later we won a medal, so we stuck with it," Kelci says.
Randy and Kathie were spending a lot of time traveling. They seldom got to see a game or meet together. One would head to see one child and the other would head to see another child. When Kelci moved to Indianapolis to train, it was a family decision. Her mother was a special education teacher by training and working in the Ball-Chatham School District. She left her job and all the benefits there to make sure Kelci could train in Indianapolis.
Just hearing about Kelci's training schedule may make the average couch potato long for a nap:
The hard work paid off. Between 2005 and 2008 as part of the national diving team, Kelci earned six gold medals, five silvers and four bronzes among others.
In early July, the U.S. Olympic Diving team was chosen at the Olympic Team Selection Camp in Knoxville, Tenn. It was official. Kelci and Ariel would be representing the U.S. for the first time in the women's synchronized springboard event. In a sense, Kelci finds out at the last minute she'll be heading to the Olympics. In reality, she's been preparing for it her whole life.
On Aug. 1, Kelci arrived in Beijing, the bare minimum of time to acclimate to a new time zone. She'd been there before for diving competitions. Her parents arrived in Beijing on Aug. 7. The opening ceremonies were on Aug. 8.
Neither Kelci nor her parents saw the opening ceremonies in the same way U.S. viewers did.
"We really didn't see much," Kelci says. The teams were in a sort of holding area outside the building. "They had large-screen TVs, but we didn't see much. It was so hot, it was ridiculous."
Her parents were in a hotel nearby. It was impossible to get tickets to the opening ceremonies, so they watched from the balcony of their hotel, where they had a spectacular view of the fireworks at the Bird's Nest, Beijing's Olympic Stadium.
While the Olympics is all about the competition, it's also a multi-level experience. Kelci was excited about getting to meet basketball greats Dwyane Wade and Kobe Bryant. Although Kelci says her usual outfit is anything but stylish - a T-shirt and shorts - she really liked the Ralph Lauren designed Olympic outfits, which were individually tailored for each athlete.
"They said we would look the best, and we did," she says.
While Kelci was in competition and traveling to and from venues with the team, her parents were negotiating the Beijing landscape mostly on their own.
"Before we left, I had Kelci's coach (Wenbo Chen - a native of China) write down where we were going in Chinese characters. That way I could just hand the piece of paper to the cabdriver." They also had someone at the hotel do the same when they traveled to and from the hotel.
Although Kelci and Ariel did not bring home a medal in the Olympics - they finished fourth - Kelci already is looking forward to 2012.
She took a year off of school to train for the Olympics - that makes her a freshman at college instead of a sophomore - and she says she will take another year off and head back to the training center in Indianapolis to train for the 2012 Olympics. By then, she'll be 23 - the same age as Michael Phelps at the 2008 Olympics. If drive and determination can make it happen, Kelci is an Olympic powerhouse in the making.
Kelci offers this advice to young people pursuing a dream: Keep your head up and don't let any negativity get you down. If you're an athlete, you face a lot of obstacles. Just get through them.
Places Kelci has competed:
Russia, Spain, Italy, Brazil, Australia, China, Canada, Mexico.
205B - a back two-and-a-half pike.
What divers wore at the Olympics:
Speedo in the pools. Nike on the medal stands. Ralph Lauren in the village.
Does Kelci ever just dive for fun?
No. In fact just hearing the question seems to give her the shivers. "At a pool, I'll just swim a little and lay out. I don't trust anything where I can't see the bottom."
Best support for U.S. families of Olympic athletes in Beijing?
Bank of America hosted a place. Families could get anything they needed, including food.
Was it thrilling to be at the Olympics?
Not exactly, according to Kathie. "It was the same people, the same competitors, the same judges. It didn't feel like the Olympics. When we came home and heard Bob Costas and the music, it seems real."
Story published Friday, November 7, 2008 ( Volume 3, Number 6 )