Olympian–turned coach to retire after 23 years on BYU dive team

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He knew this dive would either send him through to the final rounds or end his time at the competition. He jumped off the platform, letting his body do what it had been trained to do for years, and it qualified him for the diving finals in the 1986 Olympic Games.

BYU head dive coach Keith Russell took fourth in the 1968 Summer Olympics, and he plans to retire at the end of the season after 23 years of coaching at BYU.

Russell’s competitive career in diving did not end at the Olympics, as he went on to win the bronze medal in the World Championships in the 3-meter competition and a silver medal in the 10-meter competition.

Mark A. Philbrick
Russel (far right) talks to his divers during a practice in October of 2014.(Mark A. Philbrick)

“One of my greatest accomplishments as a diver was making it to the World Championships,” Russell said. “I performed the best that I could, and it was such a rewarding experience.”

After Russell was done competing, he turned his attention to helping others become great by coaching them. He taught for a couple of years at the University of Utah and came to BYU in 1992. It did not take long before Russell started to have an impact on the BYU dive team.

During his first year at BYU two of his divers, Valerie Blau and Vanessa Thelin, received All-American status. Thelin went on to win the 1994 NCAA national title in the 1-meter dive. Two of his former divers, Rachelle Kunkel and Justin Wilcok, competed for the United States in the 2004 Olympic Summer Games in Athens, Greece.

Fast-forward to today, and Russell is still making a large impact on his divers. “Coach Russell has always expected a lot out of me, but at the same time he always believed in me,” said sophomore diver Keyka Lienhard. “I have never had someone expect so much of me before.”

Russell is also well known among his divers for his sense of humor and enjoyment of life. Many times when divers miss a dive on accident, they come out of the water to find Russell smiling and laughing with them. He tells them how they can fix what they have done so they won’t do it again.

“My favorite quality would be his sense of humor,” sophomore diver Jordan Tuckfield said. “He makes practices productive and fun with his sense of humor.”

Russell has learned throughout his career that things do not always go as planned. For instance, he made it to the Olympics but did not leave with a medal. Russell said this was difficult for him, but he turned it into a learning experience that helped him improve. He then went on to win two medals in the World Championships.

“If there is one thing that I have learned in this journey is that if you can’t appreciate the negatives in life then you’re doing it wrong,” Russell said. “If you can figure out what you’re talented in and commit to it, though, you will go a long way in life.”

Russell, who is from Mesa, Arizona, has also helped many younger divers who have not yet reached the collegiate level. He founded and coached the Mesa Desert Divers, a club that helps younger divers prepare for Novice, Junior Olympic and Senior-level diving competitions.

One diver who was greatly impacted is Matt Hopper, a senior on the BYU dive team, who met Russell almost 10 years ago. “Coach Russell is one of the most well-rounded coaches that I have ever have,” Hopper said. “He knows how to pinpoint the source of a problem instead of just seeing the problem.”

After 23 years of coaching the BYU dive team, Russell has decided it is time to retire. He is looking forward to spending some more time with his grandkids, his favorite pastime outside of diving. The dive team is truly going to miss having Russell around since there are few divers with as much experience as he has.

“I am going to miss how much he cares for his divers. He truly wants each and every one of us to be not only the best divers that we can be but the best people that we can be in every aspect of our lives,” Tuckfield said. “He is an amazing coach, but even a more amazing person. I am going to miss him.”

Russell said he truly enjoyed the journey he has been on. Although he enjoyed competition, going to the Olympics was not his most rewarding experience.

“For me the most rewarding part of my career in diving has been to see my divers make it to the Olympics,” Russell said. “I have also loved the relationships I have built here at BYU, especially with the swim coaches. They have really taken me in, sharing scholarship money so that I can recruit my divers, and they didn’t have to do that. It has been really special for me.” “

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