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TOKYO – Nearly 10 years before U.S. diver Krysta Palmer became the first American woman to win Olympic bronze in the individual 3-meter springboard event since 1988, she thought her athletic career was over.
Palmer, 29, participated in gymnastics for seven years and trampoline for eight years until she was 20. A series of injuries, including a torn patellar tendon in her left knee, plus a torn ACL, MCL and LCL in her right knee, forced her to step away from the trampoline. When the Gardnerville, Nevada native met diving coach Jianli You at the University of Nevada through a mutual connection, Palmer decided to give the sport a try.
To say she found success would be an understatement.
“I met my coach up at Reno and she said, ‘Come into my club team, just have fun,'” Palmer said. “So that's really how my journey began was just come in, have fun and show me what you've got. So she really took a lot of my trampoline background that I had and transformed me into the diver that I am today.”
From the collegiate club level to the Olympic pool deck at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre, Palmer carried with her that same sense of fun she cultivated as a beginner. She competed in the women’s synchronized 3-meter springboard final, and while she finished last with partner Alison Gibson, she said it helped calm her nerves.
After she finished the individual semifinal in fifth place to advance to the final, Palmer aspired to stay as relaxed and as easygoing as possible. Moments before she stepped to the edge of the springboard for her first dive with cheers of her Team USA companions filling the arena, she had a smile plastered on her face.
“I was just grateful that I had already made it into finals,” Palmer said. “And so everything from there was just extra and it was bonus for me. Today, I really just tried my best to have fun with it and enjoy the experience because I knew this was my last competition here.”
Palmer started strong with her first dive, an inward two-and-a-half somersaults pike that scored 67.50 points. The dive catapulted her into third place behind Chinese juggernauts Shi Tingmao and Wang Han, the heavy favorites for gold and silver, respectively.
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The first-time Olympian solidified her push for bronze after the third round, pulling off a reverse two-and-a-half somersaults pike that earned 73.50 points. Not only was the dive good enough for second-best in the round, but it was also a dive that Palmer typically struggled with. She didn’t in the semifinal, and she didn’t in the final.
“I think hitting that dive, both yesterday and today actually, it just made me so proud,” Palmer said. “I know that there's been a lot of distractions in my head and I knew that I just needed to focus on one thing and really just get the timing with the board. I felt it as best as I could, working with the board and I think hitting that dive really, really hit home.”
While Palmer pulled herself out of the pool and rinsed off in the shower, she refused to glance at the standings. After all, those numbers were out of her control. Instead, she tried to concentrate on what she needed to do to accomplish each individual dive as she waited. To the tune of Lady Gaga and Rihanna blaring through her headphones, Palmer kept the focus on herself.
Then came her final dive – a forward two-and-a-half somersaults two twists pike. The dive had a 3.4 difficulty degree, one of the most challenging dives attempted in the final among all competitors. Palmer executed the dive masterfully and earned 73.10 points, her second-highest mark of the day.
“I knew that last dive was good,” Palmer said. “It wasn't the best that I could do, but I knew that it could score well. But I also know there's other strong competitors left to go. So I think really, I was in the shower and I was like, wow. I'm just proud of my list today and I knew that if I came away with a medal or if I didn't, that I would still be proud of myself for how I handled the nerves and just competing at this international stage.”
Once the rest of the field completed their final dives, Palmer allowed herself to realize what she had accomplished. For the first time since Kelly McCormick’s bronze medal in the women’s individual 3-meter springboard at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, Palmer took third for the U.S.
“Wow,” Palmer said, learning of her milestone. “There you go, that's what I think about that. Wow.”
Palmer finished third to Shi and Wang, who took gold and silver, respectively. The duo won gold in the synchronized 3-meter springboard event a week earlier. Shi became the second Chinese woman to take gold in both events in two consecutive Olympics.
Palmer finished 39.75 points behind Shi and five points back from Wang.
While Palmer didn’t compete with them, she spent much of her COVID-19 lockdown watching Shi, Wang and other Chinese divers when she couldn’t be in the pool.
“My coach is Chinese and so she always says, watch diving, no matter if you're in the pool or not,” Palmer said. “You can still be watching it. I'm proud of them. They're so consistent.”
When Palmer picked up diving a decade ago, she had a little more fight in her to pursue a sport even when her body pushed back. Palmer kept setting and achieving bigger goals throughout her collegiate career, eventually becoming the 2019 national champion in 3-meter synchronized diving.
Now that she’s an Olympic medalist, the journey isn’t over.
“I really don't feel that I'm at my peak,” Palmer said. “I have always told myself I'll stop when I reach my peak or when I stop having fun doing what I do. So none of those have really come to the end.”
Palmer, powered by joy throughout her diving career, has shown she knows how to have fun even on the high-pressure international stage.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Summer Olympics history for US diver Krysta Palmer, who won bronze