If anyone ever deserved to wear the red, white
and blue of the United States in Olympic competition, it's Kimiko Soldati.
The long and winding path that the Magnolia diver took to
achieve her dream is the quintessential American story.
In Soldati's story is the echo of the immigrant who came to this country and
endured hardships so that future generations could have a better life.
Soldati's grandparents were the first of her family to be born in America, but
that did not stop their native country from taking everything away from them
during World War II and forcing them into internment camps due to their
Japanese heritage. It was in a camp in Idaho that Soldati's father, Gary
Hirai, was born. Now almost 60 years later, Soldati will "To think that
the very country that did that to my grandparents now embraces me and is
lifting me up as an Olympic athlete, it's pretty special. I'm very
proud," said Soldati. "When I look at the U.S. Olympic team, it's
absolutely beautiful. Every color, shape and size is represented and that's
what America is all about. I'm proud to bring that to Team USA."
Pursuing a Dream
America is also all about dreams. The Land of Opportunity has seen a myriad of
dreams come true and now Soldati can add hers to the list.
As a young girl in Longmont, Colorado, Soldati's dream of competing in the
Olympics began as she watched Mary Lou Retton compete in the 1984 Games.
"I remember doing a project in school as a kid and I said that I was
going to go do gymnastics in the 1984 Olympics," Soldati reminisced.
"Little did I know that it would be 20 years later that I'd be going. The
dream to go to the Olympics has been with me ever since I can remember."
A Life Remembered
As she pursued her dream, Soldati suffered numerous setbacks. Like so many
other Americans, she has been affected by the ravages of cancer. While in high
school, Soldati's mother Judy lost her long battle with breast cancer.
Now Soldati honors her mother's memory by using the platform that her athletic
talents have given to her to bring awareness to the disease and to help raise
funds for research.
And as she heads to Athens, Soldati will be taking a special part of her
mother with her. When she got married in 2000, Soldati took her mother's
wedding band as her own. Now the ring that symbolized the love her parents
shared is always with Soldati even when she dives.
A Change in Plans
Growing up, Soldati's goal was to become the next Mary Lou and compete in the
Olympics as a gymnast. But that dream was dashed when a knee injury ended her
gymnastics career in high school.
Upon the urging of her father, Soldati took up diving. After competing for
just a year in high school, her talent was good enough to earn a spot diving
for Colorado State. She then transferred to Indiana University to train under
coach Jeff Huber and have the chance to perform on the platform. At IU,
Soldati tore her biceps from the bone while diving from the platform. The
resulting surgery forced her to miss her shot at the 1996 Olympics and later
led to a second surgery on her shoulder and a three-year hiatus from diving.
Soldati's comeback came too late for her to qualify for Sydney in 2000 but the
5-foot-1 dynamo was able to get her career on track as she won her first
national title and was named the U.S. diver of the year in 2001 and 2002. But
once again a shoulder injury, this time to her rotator cuff, derailed her
plans, forcing her to have two more shouler surgeries in the last 18 months.
Through all the setbacks and four surgeries, the 30-year-old Soldati never
gave up on her dream.
"I held on to my dream and vision. I knew if I could get healthy I could
do great things. I just wanted to see what my potential was in the
sport," she said. "I used the obstacles as stepping stones and fuel
to my fire. I can't tell you how many people would say this isn't worth it,
but I never had a doubt in my mind that I was going to pursue my dream and
never give up."
Taking a Risk
Whether it's leaping off of a 10-meter tower or not seeing the water until
right before impact, diving is a sport full of risks. But the greatest risk
Soldati took in pursuit of her dream was to leave all she had and move to the
Lone Star State.
In 2000, Soldati decided to move to The Woodlands in order to train with the
new Olympic gold medalist Laura Wilkinson and her coach Kenny Armstrong. Her
newlywed husband Adam supported her decision and after spending a couple of
months finishing up his job as a coach at IU, he joined her in Texas.
"It was a huge, huge risk, but I'm a firm believer in following your
heart and that God will take care of the rest," Soldati said. "My
husband was incredibly supportive and didn't bat an eye."
Without a place to live, the Soldatis moved in with family friends Don and
Peggy Yarborough in Conroe. They stayed there until they were able to find
their own home and Adam a job as a diving coach at The Woodlands Athletic
"I'm so grateful for them," Soldati said of the Yarboroughs.
"This sport, you're not in it for the money. We do it because we love it.
Our support system is so important to us."
A Leap of Faith
While the move to Texas and
training with Armstrong and Wilkinson has paid her off in improved diving
results for Soldati, it had another life altering change for her, a new found
faith in God.
"Absolutely the best thing to happen to me is my faith," said the
born-again Christian. "Before I came to Christ, I was striving to achieve
what I wanted on my own strength. I was absolutely exhausted from trying to do
things on my own. I never had peace. ... When I came to Christ I found faith
and I found peace."
That peace and her faith, Soldati says, helped her get through all the tough
times she encountered as she pursued her dream.
"It's so nice to see patience, hard work and faith pay off," she
said. "When I made the team, I was flooded with so many kinds of
emotions. I started thinking about everything I'd been through in my career to
get there. The countless days bawling my eyes out because I couldn't dive. But
God is so good. He sees hard work and rewards it. He doesn't give you
everything you want, but it's nice to see it pay off."
All the hard work, sacrifice, and heartaches have paid off in a trip to Athens
where Soldati will live out her lifelong dream, an opportunity she says she'll
do her best to cherish.
"You work your whole life and in all reality it's 15 dives. Two minutes
of sport compared to over 20 years of preparation and training," she
said. "It goes by so quick. I'm just going to enjoy the process and the
While she will look for the gold in the women's 3-meter springboard, Soldati
knows that no matter what she does in Athens next month, her uniquely American
story has already made her a winner.
more information on this amazing woman, log on to her website at:
reprinted with permission by Darrell Hamlett-article
from 7/6/2004 edition of
photos are from the official website of Kimiko Soldati