Diving for gold
Texas teen Kassidy Cook balances high school with her 2012 Olympic aspirations
Kassidy Cook is on a mission. The 17-year-old Texan has set her heart on making the U.S. Olympic diving team that will compete in London this summer.
And the 2012 Olympics are a realistic goal for Cook, not just a teenager's pipe dream.
She's one of four American divers considered as favorites for two available Olympic berths in the women's 3-meter springboard. The other three divers are veterans in comparison to Cook: Christina Loukas, 26, who is Cook's synchro partner, finished ninth in the 3-meter at the 2008 Beijing Games. Cassidy Krug, also 26, won silver at the 2011 Pan Am Games and is a 10-time national champion. Kelci Bryant, 23, came in fourth in the 3-meter synchro competition in Beijing.
In addition, Cook and Loukas are among the favorites for the lone U.S. synchro berth.
"She's the young one on the block," said her coach, Bob Gunter. "It's a little disadvantage as far as experience is concerned, but just being a kid she may not feel quite the pressure the other girls do."
Perhaps one reason she doesn't feel the pressure is that Cook hasn't allowed her Olympic ambitions to stand in the way of keeping things real. She makes a concerted effort to be just like any other teen whenever she can. She is finishing up her junior year at The Woodlands (Texas), and although her diving ability has already taken her well beyond varsity level, Cook competes for her school just to be part of the team atmosphere. In February, she won the Class 5A state title in the 1-meter springboard and broke her own record -- set when she was a freshman -- by almost 50 points.
She has had to make concessions this year to accommodate her Olympic aspirations. Cook, who has taken a full load of AP classes, has reduced her time at school to two periods per day and is filling in with some online studies.
"It's hard to balance doing all the school work, especially since I've missed weeks at a time [for competitions]," Cook said. "But my teachers are very cooperative. I like being able to go to school. It's a nice balance in my life so not everything is about diving."
Like most teenagers, Cook finds time to keep up with pop music and pop culture. For instance, she's quick to point out a similarity her family shares with a reality TV family -- the Kardashians.
Both clans have six kids, and the five daughters all have names that start with "K." The Kardashians have Kourtney, Kim, Khloe and the younger Kendall and Kylie Jenner, whose father is former Olympic decathlon gold medalist Bruce Jenner. The Cooks include Kara, Kelsey, Kylie, Kassidy and Kendall.
"It's funny, because a lot of people tell us when they watch that show they think of our family because our names all start with Ks. There's the five girls and the one boy, and the mom's, like, crazy and the dad's just trying to be young," Cook said. "It just kind of reminds me of our family -- we're different than they are, but there are some similarities."
While the Kardashian sisters are all about glamour and fashion, however, the Cooks are all about sports. Kara was a diver at Purdue, Kylie plays socer for the University of Houston and Kendall plays volleyball for The Woodlands. For Kassidy, stylish is a poolside wet ponytail and a one-piece athletic bathing suit. And while the Kardashians bare their family secrets on E!, Cook is hoping to make a name for herself on a different reality show, ending USA Diving's Olympic medals drought since Laura Wilkinson won gold in platform in 2000.
"When I dream about [the Olympics], I just get goose bumps," Cook said. "Diving is what I love. It's my passion."
It's been that way since she took up the sport as a 4-year-old in Plantation, Fla., where the family lived and still owns gas stations. They moved to Houston when Kassidy was 10 so Kara could train at the Woodlands Athletic Center. The initial plan was that when Kara went off to college the family would move back to Florida. But they ended up enjoying Houston, and Kassidy liked training with Gunter, so they stayed in Texas.
Cook, who became a three-time junior national champion, still finds certain dives -- such as the inward 2½, which requires the diver to stand on the board with her back to the water and rotate in a forward motion -- challenging.
"That's really my biggest obstacle," Cook said. "I have a little fear of it from when I hit the board two years ago, but I'm starting to get over it."
Cook had a setback at the USA Diving Winter Nationals last December, when she didn't finish well enough to earn a trip to the 2012 FINA Diving World Cup in London in February. Her mother, Laura, said Kassidy initially took the Winter Nationals disappointment hard.
But she turned it into motivation.
"She cried about it for one day, but then she was back in the gym, back in the pool and back working out," said Laura Cook, who spent two years at West Point as part of the Academy's first class of female cadets and played basketball at George Mason. "She put down her goals and objectives on her mirror. She said, 'I'm going to be better, I'm going to work on my weaknesses. I don't have to peak in February. I can peak in June, and I'm going to make the Olympics.'"
The renewed focus started to pay off. In March, Cook teamed with Loukas to win a silver medal in synchronized 3-meter at the FINA Diving World Series in Dubai. They won another silver in Tijuana, Mexico, in April.
Cook's next concern is the U.S. Olympic Trials, which take place June 17-24 in Seattle. Her biggest challenge: keeping focused and not letting nerves get the best of her.
"I try not to think about the pressure and try to take it one step at a time, one practice at a time," Cook said. "I'm trying not to think too far ahead because I don't want to freak myself out."
And if Cook can keep her cool, she could be diving for gold in July.