Call it a minor miracle that Justin Wilcock's diving career didn't end with his maiden plunge.
During a Cub Scout outing years ago at the high school pool in Smithfield, Utah, young Justin decided to walk to the end of the spring board and try out the back flip he had mastered on his backyard trampoline. "I hit my head on the board and had to get stitches," he said.
The emergency room doctor who patched up Justin's injury never guessed he was caring for a future Olympic diver. Undeterred by his new scar, Justin kept diving and diving. He'll take the most important leaps of his life in August, competing with the United States diving team at the 2004 Summer Olympic Games in Athens, Greece.
Representing his country on the Olympic stage, said the athlete, "has been a dream of mine since I was young."
He is joined on the U.S. Olympic diving team by fellow Church member and former BYU teammate, Rachelle Smith Kunkel, a West Valley City, Utah, native and a longtime national team member.
Now 25, Brother Wilcock grew up in Utah's Cache Valley, participating in Church activities and sports with his siblings. "We had a trampoline as long as I can remember, I was always out there on it," he said.
His tumble-and-flip skills on the trampoline led young Justin to gymnastics, which transitioned easily to competitive diving. By the time he was a deacon, Justin was competing in regional diving contests. By 14, he had qualified for his first junior olympic nationals. His diving eventually earned him a scholarship to BYU.
While competing for the Cougars in 1997, he came across a story in the sports page that Athens had been awarded the Summer Games in 2004. He cut out and framed the headline he still owns today. "I knew the 2004 Olympics were my Olympics."
But a full-time mission came first. In 1998, he began serving in the Belgium Brussels Mission.
Perhaps a promising quarterback-turned-missionary can stay somewhat sharp tossing a football for an hour or two each week. But aspiring Olympic divers/missionaries spend two years far removed from the pool. Brother Wilcock needed a year to train himself back into a competitive diver. Still, those intangible mission principles maturity, discipline, dedication served him well on the springboard. "I've exceeded where I was before my mission."
Now training full time with the national team outside Houston, Texas, Brother Wilcock serves as an Institute council president and attends the Sam Houston (single adult) Ward, Klein Texas Stake. He plans to return to BYU in the fall to finish his degree in horticulture. But for now his focus is leveled on Greece, training several hours a day, six days a week.
Brother Wilcock's teammate, Sister Kunkel, also comes from a gymnastics background. As a little girl, young Rachelle Smith loved watching the Olympic gymnasts compete. She started diving when some friends at Hunter High School talked her into joing the high school team. She admits to being a bit raw.
"I was just taking it all in and having fun," said Sister Kunkel, who began working with college divers while still in high school.
A lifelong member, Sister Kunkel, 26, went on to compete at BYU. She said she loved "every second" of her college experience. There she met her husband, Jeff Kunkel, claimed a nursing degree and polished her diving skills.
After graduation, the Kunkels moved to California where Jeff attends dental school. Soon Sister Kunkel, a member of the UCLA Ward, Los Angeles California Stake, was performing her dives in elite international meets, representing the USA.
Competing in Athens will be the highlight of her diving career. "The best thing you can do in sports is go to the Olympics," said Sister Kunkel, who will likely retire after the Games.
She is optimistic about her chances to earn a spot on the victors' podium. "If I perform there at my best I could bring home a medal."
The Americans are a traditional diving power, but are expected to be challenged by strong teams from China, Australia, Canada and Russia. "It's going to be an amazing contest," Brother Wilcock said.
Do you know of an LDS athlete who has qualified to represent his or her country at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Greece? How about a fellow member who will be competing in the 2004 Paralympics?
The Church News would like to hear about them. Please send information about Olympic and Paralympic-bound athletes (including athlete's name, home ward and stake, country and sport) to [email protected].