It had been nearly a year since Kristian Ipsen had dived in a marquee international event. It had been months since he’d even stepped on a diving board.
So on a whim last summer, the 2012 Olympic bronze medalist decided to drop by the Stanford University pool on his way home from a job at a Silicon Valley tech firm.
“After some age-group kids finished practice, I started bouncing around on the board,” he said. “I kind of realized how much I’d missed it. I fell in love with the sport again.”
With barely a year to go until the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympic Games, Ipsen hopes to bounce all the way back to world-class medal-winning form at the FINA World Championships starting this weekend in Kazan, Russia, where qualifying spots for Rio are up for grabs. The top 12 finishers in individual Olympic events (3-meter and 10-meter) and top three teams in synchronized events will earn quota spots for their countries — an enticing prospect for Ipsen.
“I feel a lot less pressure this time around,” said the 22-year-old California native, who joins 2012 Olympic champion David Boudia and Olympic silver medalist Abby Johnston as America’s top medal contenders.
It’s a given that China will walk away with a bagful of gold. In 2013 the country won nine of 10 gold medals at worlds after sweeping all 10 at the 2011 worlds. This year, Chinese divers lead the world rankings in all four women’s events and three of four on the men’s side.
“On any given day, you have the Chinese that can obliterate everybody,” Boudia told the Indianapolis Star. “But they’re also human.”
Ipsen isn’t likely to be intimidated. One of the sport’s great natural talents, he was featured in Sports Illustrated’s “Faces in the Crowd” section at age 8. Florida State offered him a full scholarship when he was 10.
In 2008, his coach told him he was going to the Olympic trials. Ipsen didn’t even know he had qualified. He wound up as an alternate on the Olympic team at age 15.
Then, four years later at the London Games, he finished third in the synchronized 3-meter springboard event with partner Troy Dumais — the culmination of years of grueling work. Two years later he stepped away from the sport to take a summer job.
“I had ever really had a break from diving since I was 6 or 7,” Ipsen said. “I didn’t really realize how much stress I’d been under leading up to the London Olympics. So I wanted to see how the real world worked.
“It was an awesome experience, but I kind of realized that traveling around the world diving is not that bad.”
Boudia is another old hand at international competition. In London he won the gold medal in the 10-meter platform by beating the favorite — reigning world champ Qiu Bo of China, who had to settle for the silver — and Britain’s Tom Daley. Boudia was second to Qui at the 2013 world championships, claiming the United States’ only medal.
Boudia, Daley, Qiu and his teammate, Yang Jian, could meet in a dramatic showdown in Kazan on the tall tower. Boudia will also team with Purdue sophomore Steele Johnson in the synchro platform event.
On the women’s side, Johnston, 25, finished her first year of Duke Medical School studies earlier this month. Despite the killer workload, she hopes to pick up another Olympic medal in Rio and finish medical school by 2018. In Kazan she’ll compete in all three 3-meter events: individual, synchronized and mixed synchro. Mixed synchronized diving, in which a man and woman compete together, is not an Olympic event.
Amy Cozad also has high hopes. The former Indiana University star will partner with current Hoosier star Jessica Parratto in the synchro platform on Monday. Parratto and Cozad will also compete in individual platform.
“A lot of times I let myself get in my own way,” Cozad, 24, said. “But I’m a lot more confident and comfortable now. As long as I land on my head five times in a row and don’t make a very big splash, I’ve got a very good shot of knocking the Chinese off their pedestal.”
Five of the 16 divers on the national team have Indiana University connections, and the national coach is IU coach Drew Johansen.
“It’s like traveling with family,” Cozad said.
Clay Latimer is a Denver-based writer who covered four Olympic Games, in addition to other sports, over 28 years with the Rocky Mountain News. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.