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Tom Gannam, Associated Press
Rachelle Kunkel of West Valley City completes a dive in the recent Olympic trials.

From the time she made her very first dive in 1994, Rachelle Kunkel was hooked on the sport.

Ten years later, Kunkel has transformed that first awkward one-and-a-half in West Valley City into more difficult and pristine dives that have now landed her on one of the largest stages her sport has to offer — the Olympic Games in Athens, Greece, this summer.

"It (the Olympics) is so big when I think of it. It is the epitome of sport. It's the best of the best," Kunkel said. "I don't know if it can sink in until I get there."

Kunkel earned her spot on the team with a second-place finish in the 3-meter springboard at the U.S. Trials last month in Missouri.

That's not too bad for a transformed gymnast.

Kunkel was involved in gymnastics in Hawaii as a teenager before moving to Utah in the 1990s. Gymnastics wasn't the same for her here as it was in Hawaii, she said. So, after persuasion from a friend, she gave diving a shot and hasn't let go since.

"Everyone on the deck turned and looked and were really excited. There were big smiles here and there," Kunkel said of her first dive. "From that instant, I just loved it. It was so fun for me."

With the help of her friends and the little quality coaching available at the time, Kunkel competed on the high school level before hooking up with S.L.A.P. Diving (Salt Lake Aquatic Program).

From there, her career took off with the help of coach Doug Jamison, who taught her more and more of the basics of the sport.

"That's really where I got better and better," she said.

After a meet, she was approached by BYU diving coach Keith Russell, and he invited her to join his team.

"I remember that day," she says. "They wanted me to be on their team at BYU. It was big for me . . . I didn't know I had a huge future in it."

She went on to be an all-Western Athletic Conference diver in 1997, 1998 and 1999 and was named the 2000 Mountain West Conference female diver of the year. Also that year, she finished sixth in the 1-meter springboard at the NCAA Championships.

During her time at BYU she began diving in several national events. It took her two years and five events to break into the Top 10 for the first time with a sixth-place finish at the PSI/Cinergy National Championships in 1998.

One year later she won her first big meet at the U.S. Summer Diving National Championship on the 1-meter springboard. She followed that up with a first-place finish at the U.S. Indoor National Diving Championship in 2000 in the same event.

Since that first victory, she has only finished lower than 10th once in 17 national events. Along the way she has collected six more first-place finishes in the 1- and 3-meter events.

Three years ago she and her husband, Jeff, moved to Los Angeles where he is attending dental school at UCLA. At the time, her diving career was in question.

Unable to lock down a sponsor, Kunkel worked full time as a labor and delivery nurse at California Hospital in downtown Los Angeles along with training four to five hours a day.

Then she came in contact with her new coach, Hongping Li, which gave her career new life.

"We didn't know if it would work out where Jeff would be going to school," she said. "Once I matched up with Hongping, everything fell into place. I like to say it was fate. It was destined to happen."

She's continued to do well in national meets. But on the international stage, however, she's admittedly had her struggles — especially in the 2001 and 2003 World Championships, where she finished 25th and 21st, respectively.

Since working with Li, she's made marked improvement.

"Over the last year he's been coaching me, I've been getting more and more consistent and getting more and more confident in myself," she said.

She made her breakthrough internationally earlier this year with a fourth-place finish at the Speedo FINA Grand Prix.

"That was important for me to put my name out there for the international community and the judges," she said.

Prior to the fourth-place finish, she had a second-place finish at the 2003 Speedo American Cup.

Now she's setting her sights on the Olympics. The Games, she said, will be her final competition before she retires. She has taken a leave of absence from work.

She will compete at the U.S. National Diving Championships in Los Angeles later this month before competing in Greece.

E-mail: jhinton@desnews.com