Diver Krysta Palmer’s Long Comeback Trail Continues At The Pan Am Games

by Shawn Smith

(L-R) Arantxa Chavez of Team Mexico, Pamela Ware of Team Canada and Krysta Palmer of Team USA stand on the podium with their medal during Women's 3m Springboard at Centro Acuatico on Day 4 of Santiago 2023 Pan Am Games on October 24, 2023 in Santiago, Chile. (Photo by Getty Images)

Diver Krysta Palmer returned from the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 to a hero’s welcome at the Reno-Tahoe International Airport. Two tankers sprayed water over her plane as it made its way down the runway, and inside the airport, hundreds of people had gathered to welcome home their new local star.

Palmer had drawn attention from her home state of Nevada — and the rest of the United States — thanks to her stellar performance in Tokyo, where she became the first U.S. diver to earn a medal in the women’s 3-meter event in 33 years, and the first U.S. woman to earn a medal in any individual diving event in 21 years.

The bronze medal was the culmination of an unlikely story for Palmer, then 29 years old, who didn’t even take up diving until she was 20 — around the same age as some of her Olympic teammates who had been competing in the sport for years.

What made Palmer’s triumph in Tokyo even more impressive was that she did it while battling a lingering hip injury.

After the post-Olympic chaos died down, Palmer made the decision to undergo surgery, and she’s been on the comeback trail ever since. That journey currently has her in South America for the Pan American Games Santiago 2023, and she hopes it will eventually lead all the way back to the Olympic Games Paris 2024 next summer.

She’s appreciating every milestone along the way.

“There was a time where I really didn’t know if I could make a comeback from it,” said Palmer, now 31. “It was a surgery that could have taken me out of diving completely.”

Palmer knew her the surgery would keep her out of action for about a year. After having the operation done in March 2022, she immediately embarked on her lengthy rehab process. Palmer was back on the stationary bike right away and doing other forms of physical therapy, but it would be several months before she could return to sport-specific training.

“I think the two things that really kept me in the sport were that I still loved the sport a lot, and I was still improving at it,” Palmer recalled. “Knowing that I hadn’t totally reached my peak, I was interested to see how much farther I can go.”

Palmer’s long-awaited return to competition came at the U.S. Championships in May 2023, where she competed in three separate springboard events. Winning the mixed synchro title earned her a ticket to the 2023 world championships, where she finished eighth (with partner Jack Ryan) in the mixed 3-meter event and fifth in the mixed team event.

Krysta Palmer competes during the women's 3-meter springboard at the Pan American Games Santiago 2023 on Oct. 24, 2023 in Santiago, Chile. (Photo by Ramon Monroy Panam Sports via Xpress Media)

The next milestone will come at the Pan American Games in Santiago, Chile, where Palmer will compete in the women’s 3-meter event on Tuesday alongside U.S. teammate and fellow Olympian Hailey Hernandez.

The Pan Am Games serve as an Olympic qualifier for diving, with the winning nation in each event receiving a quota spot for the Paris Games. Thanks to the team’s performance at the 2023 world championships, the U.S. has already earned its maximum two quota spots in the women’s 3-meter event, alleviating Palmer from the added pressure of qualifying an Olympic spot for her country.

With U.S. Winter Nationals around the corner — an event that serves as trials for the 2024 world championships team — Palmer can instead use the Pan Am Games as a training opportunity for the busy season ahead.

“I don’t really have too many expectations being here,” Palmer said. “This is my first time competing 3-meter individual (internationally) since winning the bronze in Tokyo. So for me, it’s just getting back into diving internationally again and getting experience. My plan really is to train through it and continue with my eyes set on world championship trials in December.”

Palmer’s overall focus is on getting back to doing her full list of dives, including the “double out” (also known as 5154B in diving parlance) she performed in the final round at the Tokyo Games. Her double out was one of the most challenging dives attempted by any athlete during that final. In Santiago, she plans to use the same list of dives she executed at the Tokyo Olympics, and her focus in the season ahead will be on perfecting those dives.

The goal is to work toward December’s Winter Nationals, earn a spot on the team for February’s world championships, and then hopefully be peaking by the time the 2024 U.S. Olympic Team Trials roll around in June. A strong showing at trials could send Palmer to Paris later that summer for a chance to add to her Olympic medal collection.

In Santiago, Palmer will be accompanied by the other members of the U.S. diving team selected for the Pan Am Games. It’s a roster primarily composed of collegiate athletes in their early 20s, making Palmer again the veteran of the group. She helps where she can, and she has a piece of advice that she likes to give to younger athletes who ask.

“Love what you do and work hard at it,” she tells them. “If you combine your passion and your hard work, I really feel that you can achieve something great.”

It’s advice that Palmer herself takes to heart.

“A lot of people ask me at the age of 31, are you burnt out from your sport?,” she said. “My answer is always ‘no,’ because I’ve always had fun doing what I love to do, and that’s diving.”