All Olympic medalists have a story tell. The one that Krysta Palmer, a 2016 graduate of the University, shared with the world during the Tokyo Olympics on the way to winning a bronze medal in the women’s three-meter springboard was remarkable in that no one could’ve predicted it nine years ago.
Palmer wasn’t one of those figures whose entire life had been spent in a diving facility. She only took up diving at age 20 at the urging of some friends. A consistent chronicler of Palmer’s story, Nevada Sports Net’s Chris Murray, wrote that, “At age 20, Palmer walked into UNR’s Lombardi Rec to join the club team of Nevada diving coach Jian Li You. She eventually made the Wolf Pack’s roster and was a two-time Mountain West diver of the year.”
At age 29, and still a volunteer assistant coach for the Wolf Pack, Palmer was competing in her first Olympics in Tokyo. She won her bronze medal on a torn ACL, becoming the first American woman to win a medal in an individual diving event since Laura Wilkinson took gold at the Sydney Olympics in 2000.
And to add some drama to the story: Palmer nearly failed to advance beyond Tokyo’s preliminaries. She finished 15th in the prelims to advance to the semifinals. There, she climbed to fifth. She didn’t falter on her final dives. In fact, for those watching on Sunday, it seemed like she might’ve out-performed the eventual silver medalist on her final efforts.
Her bronze medal marked the first medal for the U.S. in the event since Kelly McCormick won bronze in 1988.
The Douglas High School graduate is the seventh Olympian in Nevada’s swimming and diving history, and the first to have competed for the U.S.
Palmer had found success as a collegiate diver thanks to an incredible work ethic, the ability to dream, having an off-the-charts sense of physical fortitude, and the encouragement and belief she found from one of the world’s finest diving coaches who also happened to be her coach at Nevada.
More than that, however, it was proof that Palmer’s story was our story – one we could all relate to not only because she had grown up in northern Nevada and was a graduate of the University but because ultimately she had overcome great odds to find herself on the medal stand in Tokyo. It wasn’t surprising at all that hundreds from northern Nevada wanted Palmer to know how much her journey had meant to them. They gathered at the Reno-Tahoe International Airport on Tuesday, including University President Brian Sandoval, to welcome Palmer home.
When her journey in becoming an Olympic medalist started nine years ago, few could’ve imagined Palmer would end up as an Olympic bronze medalist. Few, that it is, except for one person: Krysta Palmer.
Somehow, particularly if you look at her own words throughout the past few years, the greatest diver in University history and certainly now thanks to her history-making bronze medal one of the greatest divers in U.S. Olympic history, knew there was a big prize just waiting for her to grab it.
What follows are excerpts of interviews Krysta Palmer has given recently and over the years. Her words speak to the road she has followed – and how she might’ve known all along what her destination was going to be.
ON HER ORIGINS IN THE SPORT, which came after Palmer had participated in gymnastics and trampoline until she was 20, a time which had seen her run the gamut of several serious injuries, including a torn patellar tendon in her left knee, plus a torn ACL, MCL and LCL in her right knee. She said meeting the legendary Wolf Pack diving coach, Jian Li You, a former national diving champion in China who has mentored numerous Olympians as well as All-Mountain West Conference performers in more than 25 years at Nevada, was a seminal moment: “I met my coach up at Reno and she said, ‘Come into my club team, just have fun.’ 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.”
JIAN LI YOU on what she thought of Palmer early on in their relationship: “She’s more talented than any diver I’ve had … I’ve never had a diver come to me that I think can beat the Chinese. But I told her, ‘You’re the first one where I can see that possibility.’”
ON HER COMPETITIVE MINDSET during the women’s 3-meter final, which included the Palmer smiling often while listening to Lady Gaga on her headphones between dives throughout the competition: “I was just grateful that I had already made it into finals. And so everything from there was just extra and it was a 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.”
ABOUT WHAT IT MEANT to become the first diver since McCormick, the daughter of diving gold medalist Pat McCormick, to win an individual medal in the 3-meter springboard: “Wow. There you go, that’s what I think about that. Wow.”
ON WHAT SHE THINKS will happen next on her journey, which will include more international diving competitions: “I really don’t think I’m at my peak. 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 the end.
ON HER REACTION to winning bronze: “I am in complete disbelief right now. I’m just trying to stay grounded on my feet.”
ON HER ORIGIN STORY as a diver: “I started when I was five years old. I was a gymnast for seven years and really worked my way up and I thought I could have an Olympic dream in gymnastics and then I had an injury that just set me back and it took me out of gymnastics for a year. My growth as a gymnast was just stunted and as soon as I took that break, I got super tall (Palmer today is 5-foot-6). All of a sudden I returned to gymnastics and I was just in a whole new body. And it was hard for me to return to gymnastics at that point. I had actually seen someone jump on the trampoline at one of my practices and I was just in awe at how beautiful it was. In the back of my mind I was thinking, wow, I love the trampoline. I would really love to give that a shot. At that time trampoline was just entering into being an international event. It became an Olympic event not long after that. So I shifted my perspective to the trampoline and thought, hey, let’s give this a go and see if I can have an Olympic dream become reality in trampoline. Then I had another two knee injuries, now a total of three knee surgeries and currently I’ve been training with a torn ACL, but that’s just been my whole career that I’ve dealt with. Diving just entered my life at the exact moment I needed it. It’s transformed me into the diver that I am today. It’s pretty cool to say I’m an Olympian in the sport of diving, because eight, nine years ago, I hadn’t even started this sport.”
ON HER TRAINING AND PREPARATIONS during the pandemic: “I really tried to make as many sacrifices as I could to be stronger than I was before the pandemic. I moved in with some teammates, and I had a friend who had a barbell and some weights and we lifted weights in her neighborhood for a lot of the time that we had pool closures. Also, we took some mats from the pool and moved them into my friend’s apartment. So we were doing fast somersaults. It sounds pretty weird, but we were doing flips inside of my friend’s apartment. But that’s what kept us in shape and kept us going.”
ON HER COACH’s role during the pandemic: “My coach, Jian Li, has had a huge impact on my career. She was there three days a week with us, coming to the apartment to do pool simulations and visualization. Our bodies weren’t in the pool … but our minds were.”
JIAN LI YOU on the journey the two have had: “Eight years ago, I told her when she walked in my pool trying to join my club team, I told her, ‘You will go very far, but I don’t know how far you can go.’ She did. She did it. I knew she could do it, but in diving you can’t really predict. … She did wonderfully. I’ve never seen that kind of performance, even from Chinese divers when I coached the Chinese national team.”
PALMER ON HER COACH’S influence: “To walk in with a world-class coach was just such a blessing for me. She brought me so far in the sport but also has taught me how to be a great person, too. She’s the most humble person I know and to experience this dream with her is so special. I always say, ‘She built me.’ She did. From the ground up. I had prior talent from my previous sports, but she really transferred all of that into my diving career. She’s special to me, and I’m so proud of her, too.”
NEVADA WOMEN’S SWIMMING AND DIVING COACH BRENDON BRAY on Palmer’s potential: “The sky’s the limit for Krysta. I don’t think anybody in the world can say, ‘I expect to win a gold medal,’ but the sky’s the limit and I think if she does her thing, anything can happen for her. She’s got to be the most rapidly improving diver over the past eight years, especially over the last year, of anybody in the world.”
ON WHAT THE FUTURE holds for Palmer: “I’m looking forward to just coming back and kind of taking a step back from my sport for a little while. I think any athlete needs to have a balanced life and needs to take a step back from it. I’m going to be pursuing my education. I’m going to working on my MBA. I might be sticking around for 2024. I would really love for my family and my parents (Mitch and Vicki) to be able to come to the games and experience it with me because they are who made me who I am and why I am here today.”
ON WHAT SHE WAS FEELING during Tuesday’s welcome at the airport: “It makes me so emotional, and I just think back because my community is just so special to me. When I was a kid just training gymnastics and trampoline, we had so many fundraisers and so many people have given to this dream of mine, and just to have this pay off and all come together in the right moment, it means a lot. As a kid, I had this big dream and to have my community behind me, so many fundraisers, we collected old cell phones to earn money to go to international trips when I was a trampolinist. We did lemonade stands. My mom and dad put so much effort into these fundraisers and so many people gave to it and gave to such an awesome dream of mine and I want to say, ‘Thank you’ from the bottom of my heart because it’s special. Nevada is so special to me. Our community of people are incredible. We have an awesome, awesome community. Thank you to everybody who has supported me in this dream, and I just want to make Nevada proud.”
ON WHAT THE JOURNEY HAS meant to her: “It’s been a long time coming with a lot of really low lows and a lot of really high highs. This is one of the highs, and it’s been unbelievable to experience this. All those lows have made this accomplishment even sweeter. It’s incredible.”
(Editor’s note: The quotes in this story have all been published previously through original reporting done by Nevada Sports Net, USA Today and NBC News.)