An American Dream

by

Darrell Hamlett

Assistant Sports Editor

The Courier

www.thecourier-online.com

 


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 Club.

"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 moment."

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.

 

For more information on this amazing woman, log on to her website at:

 

www.kimiko-usa.com

 

**Article reprinted with permission by Darrell Hamlett-article from 7/6/2004 edition of 

The Courier**

**All photos are from the official website of Kimiko Soldati  www.kimiko-usa.com**