A Family Affair
Forty-four years ago, Sharon Rittenhouse felt the thrill of winning an Olympic silver medal in the 400 individual medley in Tokyo. It didn't compare to watching her daughter try to win an Olympic medal in Beijing.
"It's the biggest thrill of my life," Sharon Rittenhouse said.
The difference between an Olympic medal and an Olympic memory for Ariel Rittenhouse Sunday was a back 2½ somersault, a dive many of Sharon Rittenhouse's Olympic teammates would have been reluctant to try 4½ decades ago.
But on this day, Ariel Rittenhouse and her diving partner, Kelci Bryant, came up just 4.5 points short in the women's synchronized 3-meter springboard final, and Ariel's mother -- Sharon Finneran before she was married -- was at the National Aquatics Center to watch.
"She worked so hard, and she's done so well, she deserved to be here," Sharon Rittenhouse said. "The way she dove, she dove just amazingly for her first Olympics.
"She's young. She's only 17, the youngest springboard diver in the meet. She's just begun. I was just so proud of her to be able to come into her first Olympics and hit every dive. Their synchro was beautiful. They could have easily been third. It depends on the judges. That's what diving is."
Rittenhouse and Bryant were in a third-place tie with Germany before the fifth and final dive. Ditte Kotzian and Heike Fischer dove first, a reverse 2½ somersault, and the Germans scored 76.5, the third-highest score of the day. Rittenhouse and Bryant, diving last, received 72.0 and finished fourth.
"We just tried to do our best," said Rittenhouse, who splits her time between her home in Santa Cruz, Calif., and her training home in Indianapolis. "We're a young team. All of our dives were good. Some of the other dives were just a little bit better than ours. We didn't miss anything. It wasn't like one dive.
"I'm disappointed. We'll just have to come back in four years and get the gold next time. "
Rittenhouse and Bryant were in position to add a least an Olympic bronze medal to the Rittenhouse family trophy case right until the end, staying in the top three places after their first dive left them in a three-way tie for first.
While Rittenhouse didn't know the importance of the final dive - - "I never look at the scoreboard. Never" - - her mother, Sharon, certainly did.
"My heart was pounding," she said. "It was unbelievable for it to get down to the last dive."
It did for a young diver who comes from a family that loves being in the water. Sharon Rittenhouse set six swimming world records and 13 American marks, and she and Donna de Varona took turns breaking each other's records for several years. Sharon Rittenhouse is in the International Swimming Hall of Fame, and her brother Mike, Ariel's uncle, dove in he 1972 Summer Games. Ariel's grandmother, Carolyn Finneran, was a team manager for the 1976 Olympic swim team.
"This is one of the greatest days of my life, just to see my daughter do so well," Sharon Rittenhouse said. "You always have that fear of the unknown because at any moment, they can make a mistake or they can miss a dive or slip off the end of the board. Things like that happen in diving.
"I'm just so proud that she was confident. She was happy. She was smiling. She had a good time, and then she dove."
It's safe to say that the Olympics are often a topic of conversation when mother and daughter are in the same room.
"Oh, a lot. I've heard lots of her Olympic stories," Ariel Rittenhouse said. "Her stories have helped me do as well as I did. I kind of learned because of what she went through.
"And my uncle helped me find my routine and told me what I had to do to be at my best physically and mentally. This was our first time. Next time, we'll know more what it's going to be like."
It won't be without more sacrifice, and the Rittenhouses know what that is like. Sharon and Ariel live in Indianapolis where Ariel trains. Sharon's husband, Bob, commutes when he can from the family home in California.
"That's the hardest part, Ariel missing her Dad and me having a part-time husband," Sharon Rittenhouse said. "That's the hardest part."
Because of training, the family didn't even spend Thanksgiving and Christmas together in Santa Cruz.
"We knew it was going to be tough to make the team," Sharon Rittenhouse said. "She had to be just perfect. We knew that if she was going to get over here and have a chance for a medal, you couldn't take those big breaks.
"She said, ‘Mom, to be that close, this makes me want to get a medal all the more.'"
Tommy Hine is a freelance contributor for teamusa.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.