Delayed Takeoff Fourteen years after switching from gymnastics to diving, Kimiko Hirai Soldati, 28, is turning heads

May 26, 2002

Kimiko Hirai Soldati provided a glimpse into her future as a top
U.S. female diver on the day she conquered heights as a
two-year-old. Diaper-clad and cloaked in mischief, she climbed
onto a bookcase in her room, tossed off the knickknacks in her
path and decided the top shelf was for her. Within a year she
declared her affinity for outdoor platforms by crawling through
an open window in her family's house in Longmont, Colo., and
peacefully perching on the first-floor ledge. By age six she
knew she could overcome bad landings, such as her errant back
handspring that bowled over soup cans at a grocery store. As a
nine-year-old she developed her air sense. Excuse me, Mrs.
Hirai, but your daughter is swinging on the clothing racks in
aisle 5. And after neighbors called Gary Hirai to tell him that
his junior high daughter was driving backward, swerving down the
street in his Datsun station wagon, could a back 2 1/2 with 1
1/2 twists have been far behind?

In fact, it was. Because of a late introduction to diving,
Soldati didn't perform her first 2 1/2 with a 1 1/2 twist until
she was 27. Her teammates at The Woodlands, Texas, club where
she trains refer to the 28-year-old Soldati as Grandma because
she is the only person on the 21-woman national team older than
23. No matter. In a testament to perseverance, Soldati has
evolved into the country's top female diver after nine years of
competing in the sport. Last month in Cleveland the 5'1",
112-pound fireplug swept the three- and 10-meter events at the
U.S. World Cup trials, besting Olympians Michelle Davison and
Sara Reiling in the springboard by 83 and 96 points,
respectively. Two weeks ago she won three international medals
at the Speedo FINA/USA Diving Grand Prix in Coral Springs, Fla.
Looming this summer is the World Cup in Seville, Spain, where
she is expected to again capitalize on her ability to move
quickly through the air and to keep clean, straight lines
throughout her dives.

U.S. divers older than Soldati have achieved high results. Mary
Ellen Clark, at 33, was a bronze medalist in the 1996 Olympics,
but she was already well-established, having won her first U.S.
title on platform at 24. No other U.S. female diver has made such
a definitive breakthrough at Soldati's advanced age.

In 1989 her classmates in Longmont persuaded Soldati, then 14,
to switch from gymnastics to diving after she tore the ACL in
her right knee on a dismount from the balance beam. The
transition was an awkward one for her. Soldati's gymnastics
background made her secure in the air, but she struggled with
learning to land headfirst in a pool instead of feetfirst on a
mat. Although she hadn't competed on anything higher than a
one-meter board, she got a scholarship to Colorado State and
competed there as a freshman and sophomore.

Feeling a need for better coaching to smooth her entry, she sent
letters midway through her sophomore year to schools with more
established diving programs. Indiana coach Jeff Huber encouraged
Soldati to attend the Hoosiers' summer camp, after which he
offered her a scholarship and asked her to redshirt a year. She

"She was a horrible diver at first but a joy to work with,"
Huber says. In the spring of 1996 Soldati won the NCAA one-meter
title, unaware that the pain in her right shoulder was due to a
torn labrum. She failed to qualify for the Olympic trials and
underwent surgery a week later. The following year she graduated
as the valedictorian from Indiana's school of kinesiology but
spent the better part of three years trying to heal the
shoulder, diving sporadically and undergoing more surgery.

She dived well at several U.S. meets in 2000, her first season
competing on the 10-meter platform, but again failed to qualify
for the Olympic trials. "It was scary to think I might never
reach my potential," she said. That May she married Adam
Soldati, a former diving teammate at Indiana, and soon after
watched on TV as Texas' Laura Wilkinson won the platform event
at the Sydney Games. Kimiko called Kenny Armstrong, Wilkinson's
coach, about joining his club and headed south.

The move paid off. Armstrong helped channel Soldati's
intensity, coaxing her not to dwell throughout a competition on
early mistakes. Last year Soldati traveled abroad for an
international meet for the first time, placing sixth and seventh
in the synchro events at the world championships in Fukuoka,
Japan. She carried the U.S. flag at the opening ceremonies there
in a poignant tribute to her father, a Japanese-American who was
born in an internment camp in Hunt, Idaho. (Her mother, Judy,
died of breast cancer in 1991.) "Kimiko is where Laura was two
years before Sydney," says Armstrong. "She's a born diver who's
just learning how to win."

TWO COLOR PHOTOS: BILL FRAKES WELL-HEALED After a shoulder injury kept her from competing for three years, Soldati has become the top female diver in the U.S.