By JULIE JAG
LONDON — Four years ago, when Kelci Bryant stood next to teammate Ariel Rittenhouse of Santa Cruz on the 3-meter springboard for their final dive of the Beijing Olympic Games, she knew too much.
Bryant had glanced over at the rankings after the pair made its fourth dive and saw that Germany had pulled into a tie with the U.S. pair for the bronze medal. With her country’s first synchronized diving title on the line, she felt the pressure, and, ultimately, that may have contributed to the two-point difference that eventually kept the Americans off the podium.
This time, Bryant didn’t look before she leapt.
Back in the Olympics with new partner Abby Johnston, Bryant turned a blind eye to the team scores in Sunday’s diving final at the Aquatic Centre at Olympic Park. It paid off in silver when the U.S. team finished with 321.90 points, behind diving powerhouse China’s 346.20 and ahead of bronze-medalist Canada [316.80].
It is the United States’ first synchronized diving medal since it became an Olympic sport in 2000. It is also the country’s first diving medal of any kind since that year, when Laura Wilkinson won gold on the individual 10m platform.
“I wasn’t watching in the scoreboard. I made that mistake in 2008,” Bryant said. “Knowing that we were tied with Germany going into that final dive added too much extra pressure, and this time I just wanted to know that, no matter what, we would go out and dive our best, and we know that we did.”
Bryant and Johnston scored 72.0 on their final dive, a back 2½ somersault, their second-highest score of the day. While Bryant may not have been peeking, Johnston was. And, she knew the color of her medal depended on how the Canadians, who were next up, fared.
“I was in shock and I wanted the last divers to go,” Johnston said of knowing her team had done nothing to spoil the silver for itself. “I was fidgeting like crazy when they were coming up with the Canadians’ score.
“When I went to Opening Ceremonies, I thought that was the highlight of my life, but I think this is it.”
Johnston, 22, is a fairly new arrival to diving. She started as a gymnast before taking up diving in 2002 and finished fourth behind Bryant and Rittenhouse at the USA selection camp for 3m synchro in 2008. She began casually diving with Bryant in 2010, but the two didn’t become monogamous until last year.
Bryant and Rittenhouse, meanwhile, both went through something of an upheaval after the Beijing Olympics.
Rittenhouse enrolled in USC, where she dived solo for little over a season before opting to retire. Last year she transferred to Florida State and found renewed enthusiasm for her sport with the help of Seminoles coach Patrick Jeffrey. With less than a year’s training under her, she qualified for the U.S. Olympic Trials in the individual 3m springboard, but finished last. She said she will aim to dive in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.
“It has been so long since we have gotten a medal and I am thrilled that it came in the very first event for diving. Watching it really made me motivated for Rio 2016,” Rittenhouse wrote in an email. “I wish I could have been there this time, and now I really want to be at Rio. So hopefully in four years it will be me up there on the podium.”
Bryant, 23, left the University of Miami for personal reasons upon her return from China. She later enrolled at Minnesota, where she was reunited with Wenbo Chen, who coached her and Rittenhouse through the 2008 Olympics. He also helped her turn Bryant’s eyes toward London.
Part of Bryant’s preparation included living in China, where Chen is from, and training with a naval dive team in Northern Shanghai. There, she tried to absorb the discipline and speed and style techniques that make China’s program so successful. In Beijing, the Chinese won all but one of the eight diving gold medals — the 10m men’s was won by Australia’s Robert Mitchem.. This year they will be looking for a full sweep, and Wu Minxia and He Zi’s haul put them on that path.
“It’s making other divers step it up and bring it to the next level,” Bryant said. “I can’t see how watching flawless dives could be a bad thing. If anything it inspires people to be better and work harder.”
The Americans started the day in third place behind Wu and He and Canada’s Emilie Heymans and Jennifer Abel. They moved into second after the next round, trailing the Chinese by less than two points. But Wu, who won gold in Beijing with Guo Jingjing, and He broke away on their third dive — an inward 2 ½ somersault from the pike position — for a six-point lead they would never surrender.
As Canada, Italy and Great Britain moved up and down the scoreboard, the Americans stayed steady in second. Johnston attributed that consistency to Bryant’s Olympic experience, which was something neither Bryant nor Rittenhouse could benefit from as newcomers in 2008.
“Her experience was crucial. She was helpful in and out of the pool, she told me a lot about the way the Olympics ran to some of the things you go through, even getting our apparel,” Johnston said.
“I think that is what gave us an edge. I was naive and she had this Olympic experience.”
Together, they took a leap of faith and earned a place in history.