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� with 1� twists have been far behind?
In fact, it was. Because of a late introduction to diving, Soldati didn't perform her first 2� with a 1� 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 obliged.
"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."