ATHENS — Rachelle Kunkel of West Valley City survived the first round of qualifying in the women's springboard diving competition at the Athens Olympics Wednesday, moving into the semifinal round as one of the top 18 divers in the world.

Kunkel, a graduate of Hunter High School and BYU, was scheduled to dive in the semifinals today at noon, Athens time (3 a.m., Utah time), with the top 12 moving into the finals scheduled tonight. Kunkel qualified 12th among the 33 contestants entered in Wednesday's competition. Since each qualifier took her first-round points into the semis, the Utah diver's chances appeared good to make it to the finals.

"We're happy. She usually doesn't do her best in prelims," said her husband, Jeff Kunkel, one of a large contingent of Kunkel fans holding "Go Shell" signs in the stands at the Olympic Aquatic Center. "She does better the farther she goes. I think she's in good position now to make finals."

After the semifinals, only the scores from the second-round dives are carried on to the finals.

Kunkel scored 294.75 on her five qualifying dives Wednesday and was never in danger of not qualifying. She was in fifth place after her first two dives but dropped to 13th after a weak finish cost her points on her third dive, a reverse somersault. She remained in the No. 13 position until her final dive, a forward three-and-a-half somersault, that earned her a score of 69.75, her highest of the day. In the tightly bunched top half of the qualifiers, she was just 12 points from sixth position, but 12 points ahead of the No. 14 qualifier.

"I started out really strong and that was my plan," said Kunkel. "I just wanted to be steady and do what I do in practice. Those first two dives were really important for me, and they were confidence boosters."

Pacing the opening round was Yulia Pakhalina of Russia with 347.04 points, with Blythe Hartley of Canada second (321.33) and Jingjing Guo of China third (319.71). Kunkel was the only American to advance. Kimiko Soldati of Magnolia, Texas, finished in 21st position after opening with two weak dives from which she couldn't recover. Soldati, like Utahn Justin Wilcock in the men's springboard preliminaries earlier in the week, was injured and not able to dive at her peak. In the U.S. Olympic Trials, Soldati finished first and Kunkel second.

Kunkel and her husband, Jeff, are living in Los Angeles while Jeff is attending dental school at UCLA. They met at BYU. In L.A., Kunkel is coached by two-time Olympic and 12-time Chinese national champion Hongping Li.

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Also in Olympic qualifying Wednesday, former BYU sprinter Frank Fredericks of Namibia succeeded in his attempt to make the 200-meter final at age 36. Fredericks, holder of the second-fastest 200 ever — the 19.68 he ran at the Atlanta Games in 1996 to take silver behind Michael Johnson's world-record run — was the third fastest qualifier in his semifinal heat, running 20.43. Ahead of him were two favorites in the event, teammates Shawn Crawford (20.05) and Bernard Williams (20.18) of the United States. Tobias Unger of Germany also qualified in 20.54.

In the other semifinal, Justin Gatlin of the United States, winner of the 100-meter gold medal, qualified in 20.35, finishing ahead of 100-meter silver medalist Francis Obikwelu of Portugal (20.36), Stephane Buckland of Mauritius (20.37) and Asafa Powell of Jamaica (20.56). Next to Fredericks, the oldest runner in the final, which is scheduled for tonight, is Buckland, who just turned 27.


E-mail: lbenson@desnews.com