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March 12, 2014

Taking the plunge

By: Marc Mullen

Kaylea Arnett is the most decorated diver in school history, but this self-proclaimed free spirit has a wide array of outside interests – and she isn’t afraid to pursue any of them

Just a junior, Virginia Tech’s Kaylea Arnett already has become the best female diver the Virginia Tech program has ever seen. Following the 2014 Atlantic Coast Conference Women’s Swimming and Diving Championship, she became the league’s third student-athlete to be named the ACC Women’s Championship Most Valuable Diver for three consecutive years.

The honor was inevitable, as she won a pair of gold medals and a bronze medal at the event, which was held in late February at the Greensboro Aquatic Center in Greensboro, N.C. She began the three-day meet by capturing the 1-meter diving title for the third straight year with a school-record performance, and she became the first female in the ACC to claim a three-peat in the event in almost 20 years.

She followed that performance by becoming the school’s first female to win the 3-meter diving title, setting another school record, and she completed her championship by fighting back from a seventh-place, first-dive effort in the preliminaries of the platform event to claim the bronze.

Not bad for someone who is really just a free spirit.

“I’m a very day-to-day, moment-to-moment type of person,” Arnett said. “I don’t plan ahead. I just go one second at a time here. I try not to set goals, and that’s just how I keep myself positive and just go with what happens.”

Diving (pun so not intended) into Arnett’s past, listening to her summer plans and foreseeing her future endeavors certainly give a glimpse into the non-conformist lifestyle that she lives.

Maybe she was born for this, a life of spinning and twirling and jumping from a board. She is the middle child of Kevin Arnett, a retired stuntman, and Terri, a retired power tumbler and trampolinist.

Many kids tend to get involved with the things that their parents like. Arnett is no different. She possesses the same free spirit of her parents.

“Yeah, when my dad lived in Dallas, he was a stunt man. He was in a couple of movies, but that was before I was born,” she said. “He specialized in car stunts and building falls and just random stuff. He used to do Jet Ski shows … he’s just crazy.

“But that’s my parents. They’ve gone skydiving. My mom is really energetic and very enthusiastic, and my dad is also, so I just kind of take after them.”

One thing that she couldn’t avoid getting from her mom was her heritage. Her mom’s side of the family is Chickasaw and part of the Chickasaw Nation – a federally recognized Native American nation located in Oklahoma.

“We do stay in touch with the tribe,” Arnett said. “I have a guy that always keeps up with how I am doing, and he writes articles on me and puts me on the website. The governor, our chief [Governor Bill Anoatubby], stays in touch with us. It’s just part of who I am.

“We actually used to live there [Oklahoma City] for a few years. They would have festivals and everything. The governor would have me make speeches to the tribe. Yeah, we moved away, but I still keep in touch with what’s going on with them.

“But our tribe is more, like, civilized, just very normal. I know the history of our culture, and I really embrace it. I use our history and our past as a way to fire me up. I know the history of the Chickasaw, and they have a very strong warrior spirit and I would sometimes remind myself of that whenever I am going through a hard time or when I am competing. That helps fire me up.”

Oklahoma City is also where an 8-year-old Arnett began her diving career – at the Oklahoma City Regional Training Center under the direction of Alik Sarkisian, who is now the head diving coach at Northwestern University.

Kaylea Arnett has owned the 1-meter board at the ACC Championship, winning the event each year since she arrived at Tech.

“I was a power tumbler,” she said. “I was very energetic when I was really little, so my mom put me in power tumbling. I did that for about six years, and then I went to a pool party and was playing around on the boards and one of the coaches – he was a Russian coach – saw me and he made me start trying diving. The rest is pretty much history.”

There is a little more to the story. The center closed when Arnett was around 12 years old, and at that point, the family decided to make a move to the suburbs of Houston, so Arnett could continue diving.

“We moved mainly because of diving,” she said. “There was a program there that was pretty prestigious. It was between Indianapolis and Houston – the Woodlands, in particular, not exactly Houston. But in the Woodlands, they had a pretty prestigious program. They had tons of Olympians, and it was just a really big name.

“I just always go with the wind. Diving was a pretty big part of my life back then, and I think my parents really wanted me to go after diving, and so they moved for me. It was a hard decision, but my dad had better work in Houston as well, so it was a good move for everyone.”

Her diving career took off. At the 2006 Speedo Junior National Championships, Arnett won all three events. She would also win the 1-meter and platform events at the 2007 Junior Pan American Championships, and she was selected for the Olympic Medal Program, which provided her with additional resources and opportunities to develop her talent.

She eventually caught the eyes of college recruiters and had several schools on her list, including the Naval Academy, Miami, Texas, Kentucky and Tennessee. Arnett chose Tech thanks to an early relationship she developed with Hokies’ diving coach Ron Piemonte.

“I had known him ever since I was, like, 8, ever since I started diving,” she said. “I always really liked him, and he was the first person that started recruiting me. For some reason, I just felt Virginia Tech – my heart was there. So now I’m here.

“But when I was little, my coach and everyone around me was very Olympics gung-ho, and I was like, ‘OK, I’m going to go to the Olympics, yeah!’ Then along the way, I learned that pushing for the Olympics actually landed me an opportunity to go to college, and this is what I really wanted.”

College is about new experiences, furthering education and building relationships, and that is certainly not lost on Arnett. The philosophy major has taken on an interesting subject and is exciting about where it is literally going to take her.

She has begun studying Japanese (as a language), and in June, she will be leaving the United States to study abroad in Japan – Kyoto and Tokyo, specifically. She will return in late August before the Tech fall semester begins.

“I’ve always loved Japanese culture,” she said. “I’m just really excited. It’s a dream. I’m going to be lost and alone in Japan, but I’m going to have a great time. I’ll be taking Japanese classes, like the language, and then in the afternoon, we’ll do cultural stuff.

“I have Japanese diving friends that I met at the international meets, and I’ll contact them and find out when they’re diving at the pool. They’ll hook me up. They don’t even speak English, but we’re best friends. They are taking English now, so they are getting better, and I know a little Japanese, so it’s getting better communicating with them.

“I don’t really know how I met them. But all the European teams would stick together and all the North American teams would stick together, and I would just hang out with the Japanese divers. I don’t know why. I just thought they were the coolest thing.”

A philosophy degree and the ability to speak Japanese don’t appear to be a part of her future plans once she leaves Tech, though. She plans on heading to another big city – Las Vegas. No, she’s not looking to become a professional gambler. She’s got her sights set on Cirque du Soleil.

“Oh, I love this question!” Arnett said in reference to the “what will you do after graduating” inquiry. “After college, I’m going to try and get into Cirque du Soleil, so I’m not really looking to do anything with philosophy. I am pretty set on that.”

Kaylea Arnett and Ryan Hawkins will go down as two of the greatest divers in Tech history, if not the greatest.

“Oh yeah, my parents know the plan,” she said. “When I came to college, my mom was like, ‘You need to be an engineer, or you need to be a doctor.’ And I was like, ‘I can’t. I just want to do fun stuff.’

“When I was 13 or 14, I went to Canada for an event, and Cirque was there. Their base is in Montreal, so they had a tent at the meet and were recruiting us. So ever since then, I was like, ‘Wow, I should do this!’ So that’s the plan, and the “O” show, they recruit divers. So hopefully I will get into that.

“I haven’t seen “O,” but I have seen one Cirque show called “Delirium.” I have a friend that is in Cirque – he won NCAAs his senior year and now he’s in Cirque – so I kind of have an inside source on that. So he kind of tells me what I need to do to get involved. Hopefully, he will be able to help me out.”

Maybe that philosophy degree will come in handy for Arnett after all. It was popular philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson who wrote, “Life is a journey, not a destination,” and that is certainly not lost on her.

However, before Arnett runs away to the Cirque, she’s still got the 2014 NCAA Diving Championship, where she can add to her four All-America accolades. She also has a senior year of competition, and she can tie or pass Sara Smith (2006-09) for the most gold medals ever won in ACC competition by a Tech swimmer or diver. Arnett’s four gold medals are already the most of any diver, male or female, at Tech, and she trails only Smith, who won five gold medals in swimming events, for the most.

She’s not worried about that, though. Such things are far into the future. For her, the current moment is much more interesting.