Reach For the Sky: Douglas Grad Krysta Palmer Aims For 2020 Olympics

by Joey Crandall, • 10 min read

Lights. Two of them, shining brightly.

They obscured everything but shadowy figures in the back of an NBC television trailer, parked outside the Indiana University Natatorium in Indianapolis.

“Once you’re in that moment, I don’t know, it’s hard to describe the feeling,” said Douglas High graduate and Carson Valley native Krysta Palmer, 24. “It’s the chair I’m sitting in, two spotlights, a cameraman and the interviewer. It was a little intimidating.”

Palmer was one of the 108 top divers in the United States – some of the elite performers in the world — competing at the United States Olympic Swimming & Diving Trials in June.

And there she was at center stage, so to speak.

“It gives me chills, even right now,” she said. “I don’t ever get tired of sharing my story, I feel like it has just all been part of God’s plan. I have this belief that there is a reason for everything.

“Sometimes I look back on the past three years and think, ‘What just happened?’”


19 FEB 2015: competes in the women's 3M Diving prelim during the Mountain West Swimming and Diving Championships at Palo Alto College Aquatic Center in San Antonio, TX. Jack Dempsey/NCAA Photos
Krysta Palmer competes in the women’s 3M Diving prelim during the Mountain West Swimming and Diving Championships at Palo Alto College Aquatic Center in San Antonio, TX. Jack Dempsey/NCAA Photos


“The reason why people give up so fast is because they tend to look at how far they still have to go, instead of how far they have gotten. ” 

Posted to Krysta Palmer’s Twitter account, June 8, 2016

There is no simple way to tell Krysta Palmer’s story.

Krysta Palmer
Krysta Palmer

It’s not short. And it’s not easy.

She, like any child who has ever seen an Olympiad on television, grew up with a dream of one day representing her country and standing proudly atop a medal podium while the Star Spangled Banner was played in her honor.

The thing was, though, for her it wasn’t just a crazy dream.

From the age of 5, Palmer excelled in gymnastics. And not just in that “Hey, she’s pretty good” sort of way.

She shifted into the trampoline discipline at the age of 12 and her career literally took off.

In a relatively short amount of time, she grew from talented gymnast to Olympic hopeful with realistic expectations of making the trip to the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing.

That was derailed, though – at least temporarily – when she landed awkwardly during a routine

It was the full alphabet-soup litany – ACL, LCL, MCL, meniscus.

All torn.

All devastating.

I first met Palmer during that time – she was working at Tumbleweeds Gymnastics in Minden as the Beijing Games approached and she agreed to talk with me for a story.

There was a resolve then, fighting off the frustration of the Olympics – a competition she realistically could have,  should have, been at – that she would get there.

Some day.

She didn’t doubt it.

By the time we were done speaking, I didn’t either.

She recovered and rehabilitated. Made the U.S. National Team. Won a national title in 2009, and appeared ready for a breakout campaign in 2010.

The 2012 London Olympics were within striking distance.

It was really happening, this time.

But in the days before the 2010 World Championships, the right knee failed her again – the ACL, again. And then another injury before the 2012 Olympic Trials.

“I’ve had three knee surgeries,” she said. “Two on my right, one on my left. I’d been really set back by injuries. It became a question of ‘Should I even keep doing this?’ It’s obviously something I loved to do. I mean, really loved it. I definitely knew I would miss it if I was going to quit. But I had to start thinking in terms of my own good.”

So the trampoline career began to come to a close.

The dream, though, wasn’t going to go with it

Photo courtesy of USA Diving
Photo courtesy of USA Diving


Palmer kept coaching with the Tumbleweeds traveling team, while taking classes at Western Nevada College.

“I had a friend in Gardnerville who was working down at the Carson Valley Swim Center. He asked me to come down and try some things out on the diving board, just for fun,” Palmer said. “He would do something and I would just try to wrap my head around it.

“After a while, I thought, ‘I think I can could do that.’ I’d try the dives feet first, and then just try to duck them into a real dive.

“My friend really pushed me to go up to the University of Nevada and check out the diving coach (Jian Li You) up there. He knew her, and told me how she was a world-class coach.”

So, with all of one full, goof-around diving practice under her belt, Palmer picked up the phone and gave Jian Li You a call.

“I told her a bit about my injuries, how they had been setting me back in my previous sport, and that I was interested in giving diving a try,” Palmer said. “She said to come on in and work out with her diving club.

“I showed her the things I’d learned at the pool in Minden. Of course, I didn’t look like a diver, but she saw potential there, I guess. She invited me to just keep coming in, that there’d possibly be a walk on spot in the next year. I didn’t have any nerves going up there because I really didn’t expect anything.”

After a couple more sessions, this time it was Jian Li You calling Palmer up.

“She said ‘I don’t want you next year. I want you next semester,’” Palmer said. “I was still coaching at the time, and living at my parents’ house and going to WNC. I had a whole life to transfer. I was coaching with the travelling team – that was the hardest one to drop. But everyone completely understood. They basically said ‘You go make your dreams come alive.’”


 Mountain West Swimming and Diving Championships Platform finals held at the Texas A&M Student Recreation Center Natatorium in College Station, TX. Jack Dempsey/NCAA Photos
Mountain West Swimming and Diving Championships Platform finals held at the Texas A&M Student Recreation Center Natatorium in College Station, TX.
Jack Dempsey/NCAA Photos

Palmer’s diving career basically drove in full reverse.

Where most would start with the fundamentals and progress to the refined skills, Palmer already had many of the refined skills from a lifetime in gymnastics.

Lacking were the fundamentals. Entering the water cleanly, for example.

“It was really kind of funny how it progressed,” she said. “I had a lot of the flipping ingrained in me, so we just kind of skipped the basics.

The Mountain West Swimming and Diving Championship 3-Meter Springboard finals held at the Texas A&M Student Recreation Center Natatorium in College Station, TX. Jack Dempsey/NCAA Photos
The Mountain West Swimming and Diving Championship 3-Meter Springboard finals held at the Texas A&M Student Recreation Center Natatorium in College Station, TX. Jack Dempsey/NCAA Photos

“A lot of the dives I was doing at the beginning weren’t basic dives. They were real dives. We could have taken the time to go through that basic work, but I don’t know if I would have gotten this far.

“People would ask if I had tried this dive or that dive, just basic dives, and I’d just kind of shake my head and say, ‘Uh uh.’

“It scared me just to jump off of the 10 meter platform feet first. I don’t want to do that, even now. But to do a sequence on the way down, that’s already in my body. I know how to do that.”

One could call Palmer’s rise in the diving world meteoric. But in saying so, one would be falling short of the target.

In her rookie season – basically just a handful of weeks after attempting her first dive — she competed in the Mountain West Conference championships, following that up with All-Mountain West honors as a sophomore.

Respectable, sure, but that only sparked the fire.

From there, she blistered off 18 regular season event wins, four Mountain West Conference titles, a pair of NCAA Regional titles, three top-10 NCAA national championship finishes, back-to-back All-American honors and was named the Mountain West Conference Diver of the Year … twice.

The University of Nevada named her the most outstanding senior female athlete after she graduated with a degree in kinesiology this past May , having earned all-conference academic honors twice on top of her many athletic accolades.

In April, she won a national championship in 10-meter platform synchronized diving with her partner, 13-year-old Tarrin Gilliland.

And then, the Olympics became part of the conversation again.


Screenshot courtesy of Chris Murray/Twitter: @MurrayRGJ
Screenshot courtesy of Chris Murray/Twitter: @MurrayRGJ

Cue the lights.

You remember, the ones from the beginning of the story?

Palmer’s marks qualified for the Olympic Trials in June. For as long as she’d competed as a gymnast, it was the one competition that had continued to elude her.

“The interviewer from NBC asked me before the competition what my goal was,” she said. “My synchronized partner was the youngest diver in the competition and I had only been diving for three years. So we were both young in the sport in different ways.

“They asked what it felt like to think of the possibility of making the Olympics. I said I couldn’t go into this competition expecting a lot. It’s been three years, and I’m already here. I’m grateful to even be here. I really just wanted to come away feeling like I did the best I could.”

Palmer and Gilliland qualified for the finals in the 10 meter synchronized platform and Palmer qualified for the finals in the individual 10 meter platform.

Ironically, Nevada doesn’t currently have a platform tower (10 meters, by the way, is just under 33 feet tall – or roughly the equivalent of jumping off the top of a three-story house), so Palmer’s exposure on the apparatus has been limited.

Among the many, many surreal moments during the week was when Palmer saw herself on a replay of the television broadcast of the trials.

“They had so many good things to say about my partner and I,” Palmer said. “That was really exciting. But the seeing myself on television, that was a weird experience. When you’re there in real life, there are these 12 big cameras, and they are right there for everything that happens. Then to go home and see what they created out of it, I really enjoyed seeing that.

“You can’t shrink away or be afraid of the cameras, because they follow you, and they don’t stop. You just have to get used it and accept it pretty quickly because you still have to compete.”

In the final round, Palmer took ninth individually and the duo finished fourth in synchronized.

“I was so pleased with that,” she said. “I know this is not the end of my career. I’m planning on going on and competing for the 2020 Olympics (in Tokyo, Japan). I don’t feel like I’m at my potential. I want to reach my potential, to see how far this can take me.

“I was so proud to make the finals in both events. I’m up there with the ones I need to be competing with. It gave me hope, inspiration. Now I know what it takes to get there.”

In the interim, Palmer is continuing to train with Jian Li You, and she’ll serve as an assistant coach for the Wolf Pack diving program this year.

Photo courtesy of the University of Nevada
Photo courtesy of the University of Nevada

“I’ve never had a single doubt in my mind that my coach can take me all the way,” Palmer said. “I’ve never had a doubt. To get to where we’ve gotten today, even without a platform, is amazing to me. The amount of knowledge she has in teaching me the fundamentals and basics of what diving is, even without a platform, has been a tremendous help.”

She’ll shift into training without the responsibilities of being a student. She said she’s also be hoping to land an internship where she can exercise her degree.

“My heart is in diving right now,” she said. “I don’t think I was meant to be a trampoline Olympian. All of the things I learned in that sport, though, have helped make me the diver I am.

“They put together a list of my accomplishments at Nevada and I was reading over it. It took me back for a minute. I though, ‘Wow, I guess I really did that.’ You can’t dwell on the accomplishments, though. For me, I’ve always had a goal in mind, and as soon as I accomplish that goal, I make a new one.

“For the past three years, I’ve been the ‘new diver’ where I just didn’t expect too much. Now, I need to start moving the goals up and up and up. After seeing the trials and competing at the trials, that’s where I want to be. I feel like I can do it.”


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