08/02/2004 at 01:00 AM EDT
Early on, Kimiko Soldati's parents knew she was headed places. They just didn't know where. When her mother put the toddler down for a nap, she'd jump out her bedroom window to go play. (Eventually, they put bars on the window.) When she was 5 and her parents took her shopping, Kimiko did flips down the aisle. Around the same time, she'd disappear from her house and show up in a nearby yard; the neighbors would call her parents to let them know her where-abouts. "She was just driving us crazy," says father Gary Hirai, 59. "She was ornery and not afraid. We were just hoping that she didn't find herself in jail sometime."
Their daughter found a better way to channel all that energy. Soldati is now headed to the Olympics in Athens, where she will be diving for the U.S. on the 3-meter springboard. "All the injuries, all the surgery, all the days of crying my eyeballs out—this is the moment that I've waited for," says Soldati. She didn't start diving until high school and at 30 is the oldest member of the squad (some teammates call her Grandma). "I prove you don't need to steal a kid's childhood away to make it. My parents didn't push me—I did it because I loved it."
Soldati's presence on the team sends another message to the competition: Be very afraid. Although the Chinese team is a powerhouse, "I think Kimiko scares them," says her coach, Kenny Armstrong, An explosive, acrobatic diver, "she's got the speed and athletic ability they can't match," he says. Another advantage, says NBC diving analyst Cynthia Potter: "She doesn't have a whole lot of curves. She's able to make herself look like a javelin going into the water."
Soldati grew up in Longmont, Colo., with brother Chris—now 32 and a mortgage consultant in their hometown. Her family saga on her father's side touches on one of the more painful moments in American history: He was born and spent the first two months of his life in an Idaho internment camp during World War II. Like thousands of Japanese-Americans, his parents were confined as supposed threats to national security. "It's just impossible for me to say how far our family has come since that time," says Kimiko's paternal grandmother Mae Hirai. "Kimiko took us right to the top." The diver, too, has experienced her share of heartbreak. Her mother, Judith, died in 1991 after a seven-year battle with breast cancer. "She will always be present in my life," says Kimiko, who wears Judith's thin platinum wedding band even during meets. "Maybe the perseverance I have has been passed down through my mom."
The 5'1", 112-lb. athlete has needed every ounce of it to persist with the sport she took up at age 16 after tearing a ligament in her knee doing gymnastics. Though diving tends to be less physically punishing, Soldati has suffered a host of severe injuries requiring four shoulder surgeries and layoffs of as long as a year. Perhaps the most devastating took place in 1996 during her second year on the Indiana University dive team. Hurtling downward off the 10-meter platform at about 35 miles per hour, "I hit the water wrong," she says—and tore her right biceps off the bone. Ignoring the intense pain, Soldati continued to dive for several months—"I didn't want it to be hurt," she explains—until a specialist her coach asked to take a look at it told her she needed immediate surgery.
Since then she has come to accept pain as a fact of life. She also relies on the unflagging support of husband Adam Soldati, her Indiana diving teammate. After she failed to make the 2000 Olympic squad—and saw her friend Laura Wilkinson go on to win gold—it was Adam, now 30, who insisted the couple move to Houston so that she could train with Wilkinson's coach, Armstrong (even though it meant giving up his own position as assistant diving coach at Indiana). "That's what marriage is all about," says Adam, who looks forward to starting a family with Kimiko after the Games. "We're so together that I'll do anything I can to reach her dream."
Barring last-minute injury, a medal looks tantalizingly within reach for Soldati. "They're amazing, beautiful, strong divers," Soldati says of her Olympic competition. "But so am I."
Pam Lambert. Wendy Grossman in Houston