Some practice sessions between Kelci Bryant and her coach Wenbo Chen look more like professional wrestling matches than diving.
At least that was the case just before last month’s U.S. Olympic diving trials.
Bryant and her synchronized diving partner Abby Johnston were walking down the board during a mock meet at the University Aquatic Center when they heard a noise.
“Wenbo [Chen] started throwing chairs on the pool deck,” Bryant said. “And he was like, ‘You have to expect distractions like that.’”
At the trials in Federal Way, Wash., Bryant thought of her longtime coach as she and Johnston prepared for their final 3-meter dive — the one that clinched their spot on the U.S. national team. The duo will compete in the London Olympics at the end of the month.
“I kind of started laughing because I was just envisioning Wenbo on the side of the pool in Minnesota with one of those audience machines and playing it,” Bryant said. “And I was like, ‘Let’s do it.’”
Bryant and Johnston led by cumulative points throughout the preliminary and semifinal rounds of the trials. During the final, Kassidy Cook and Christina Loukas outscored Bryant and Johnston in every dive but fell less than a point short of overtaking them.
With their narrow win, Bryant will compete in her second Olympics. Chen will again be poolside as her personal coach — just as he’s done for almost a decade.
Bryant said she began taking diving lessons at age 9. While Chen did not begin formally coaching her until her freshman year of high school, he said he knew of her capabilities long before she started.
Chen coached Bryant’s older sister, Katie Beth, at Moss Farms Diving in Moultrie, Ga. — his first job in the U.S. after diving and coaching in his native China.
“I encouraged [Bryant] to continue diving, maybe have a future,” Chen said. “If you continue training you might have the opportunity to make the Olympic Games.”
Bryant, who had trained in gymnastics and swimming before beginning diving, took Chen’s words to heart. But she had another reason, too.
“I wanted to be just like my sister,” Bryant said.
Bryant’s mother Kathie said she remembers the moment that led to her daughter’s first diving lessons.
She said one day, Bryant couldn’t perform an inward dive, which sparked a display of her early passion for the sport.
“She was like 7 years old. She was stomping and crying and screaming,” Kathie Bryant said. “I figured if I didn’t show her the right instruction, she would kill herself trying to figure it out.”
The family’s hometown of Springfield, Ill., did not have many diving programs. So Bryant’s first lessons came in St. Louis, Mo. — a four-hour roundtrip she made three days a week.
The drive became even longer when Chen accepted the head diving coach position at Purdue in 2001. Bryant eventually followed him, this time making six-hour roundtrip drives.
Once Bryant started high school, she and her mother moved to West Lafayette, Ind. According to an NCAA rule, a college coach cannot train a high school athlete unless he or she lives within a 50-mile radius.
“My parents gave up so much for me,” Bryant said. “Now that I’m getting older, I’m starting to realize how much they have sacrificed, and it’s crazy.”
In 2005, Chen left Purdue for the National Training Center in Indianapolis as a U.S. national team coach. Bryant again followed Chen and started homeschooling to focus on her diving.
In all, Bryant has only spent one semester away from Chen since he became her coach. She competed at Miami, her sister’s alma mater, in 2008 before returning to the National Training Center.
When Minnesota offered Chen the head diving coach job in 2009, it signed up for a package deal.
“He asked my mom, ‘Do you think Kelci would come to Minnesota with me?’” Bryant said. “And my mom was like, “I know she’ll go wherever you go.’”
The college experience
Bryant said Chen encouraged her to dive collegiately.
“Wenbo really wanted me to experience college,” Bryant said. “Even though he grew up in China, he understands the importance of college in the United States and competing in NCAA [championships] and … that atmosphere.”
During her two seasons at Minnesota, Bryant dominated the college diving scene. She was Big Ten champion in 1-meter and 3-meter springboard in 2010 and 2011. She also won the NCAA title in 3-meter in 2010 and 1-meter in 2011.
“Having that team and having not just divers behind you, but swimmers as well was … a support system I’ve never had before,” Bryant said.
Bryant enjoyed much success with the Gophers, but she chose to take the 2011-12 season off to solely train for the Olympics.
Although Bryant has one year of eligibility left, she said she does not plan to compete with Minnesota next season.
Head men’s and women’s swimming and diving coach Kelly Kremer said Bryant will be missed.
“Any time you have an athlete like Kelci and then don’t have her, the following [year], you feel it because she is such a great athlete and performs at the highest level,” Kremer said.
Bryant has a few tears in her shoulder that she plans to have surgically repaired after the Olympics. The recovery time will not allow her to compete in the collegiate season, but she will work on finishing her communication studies degree.
“I definitely want to be here for the team and come around, hang out, maybe help Wenbo coach,” Bryant said. “I’m going to miss it so much. I’ll probably be [at the Aquatic Center] almost every day.”
Bryant qualified for the 2008 Olympics through a selection process with former partner Ariel Rittenhouse.
Although Bryant had yet to begin college, she said she expected a podium finish at the games.
They placed fourth.
“The first Olympic experience was definitely tough to say the least,” Bryant said. “It was gut-wrenching. My synchro partner and I didn’t just train to make the Olympic team — we trained to actually get on the podium there and to be one of the best in the world.
“I remember turning around in the water and looking at the scoreboard and seeing that we were in fourth place,” Bryant said. “I just remember being like, ‘No, that’s not true.’ Because we didn’t envision it going any other way.”
Bryant said she and Rittenhouse underestimated the team from Germany that took third — a mistake she said she’s learned from.
Rittenhouse dove with Bryant in 2009, but decided to focus on college instead. Bryant decided to look for a new partner because she “can’t just be a diver and not be one of the best.”
Bryant competed with a few different partners, including Johnston, who competes at Duke, in 2010 and 2011. The two just decided to fully commit this year.
“We didn’t really try that hard at all, and then we ended up almost winning to qualify to go to World Championships in 2011,” Bryant said. “And we both decided, ‘Hmm, we could be pretty good if we actually practiced.’”
Although Bryant experienced change with her new partner, she said she is excited to compete with Chen at her side.
“I’ve struggled a lot the past few world meets. He hasn’t been able to be there for the camps before, so I was jumping from coach to coach,” Bryant said. “So to have that solid rock there the whole time, I think that’s going to be really helpful.”
The London Olympics are July 27 to Aug. 12. The women’s synchronized 3-meter springboard final is July 29.
Even though Bryant will take a break from diving after the Olympics, she said to “never say never” about a comeback.
Wherever her diving career takes her, Bryant said she and Chen’s bond will continue off the diving board.
“He cares about me a lot as a person,” Bryant said. “I would consider Wenbo like my second dad.”
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