The bond formed between coach Kenny Armstrong and diver Laura Wilkinson through years of international competition will serve them well as they team up to raise funds for a new athletic center in The Woodlands
KEVIN FUJII: CHRONICLE
 
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Nov. 22, 2007, 1:18AM
Wilkinson hopes new foundation is a springboard
Diver joins coach in effort to raise funds to build new athletic complex near Woodlands
 

As they enter the final months of their 15-year association as athlete and coach, Olympic gold medalist Laura Wilkinson and Woodlands Dive Team coach Kenny Armstrong have become business partners in a proposed venture that could be even more challenging than her competitions against the world's top divers.

Wilkinson and Armstrong have joined forces in an effort to raise $11 million to build a replacement for the Woodlands Athletic Center, which closes in the fall of 2008 after housing Armstrong's award-winning dive team for the last 19 years.

During a party at the WAC to celebrate her 30th birthday, Wilkinson announced the formation of the Laura Wilkinson Foundation to fund construction of a proposed athletic complex near The Woodlands that would house Armstrong's diving program.

"It's kind of a big number," Wilkinson said of the $11 million price tag. "But I believe in Kenny's dream, and I believe it will happen and I will do everything I can to help it along."

She's putting wings on the dream, too. Wilkinson and her husband, Eriek Hulseman, launched the foundation with a $10,000 contribution. Based on that startup, all she and Armstrong need are the equivalent of another thousand or so who believe and contribute with equal fervor.

"The WAC is going away, and I'm so sad because it's one of the most special facilities in the world," Armstrong said. "It's been a springboard, and it's going away. But something is going to spring out of it that is even better."

Wilkinson and Armstrong are working with Chattanooga, Tenn., architect Craig Kronenberg and developer Christopher Davis of KDT Realty Group on plans for the athletic complex, the cornerstone in a potential $50 million development that could include a hotel, condominiums, retail and restaurants.

Armstrong said the proposed Armstrong Sports Academy would house elite programs for gymnastics, trampoline and dance in addition to the diving program, which currently includes about 40 competitors and another 60 students taking elementary or intermediate lessons.

Since Armstrong, a former Olympic diver for Canada, arrived in The Woodlands 19 years ago, his divers have won at least 20 national team championships and dozens of individual titles, and at least a hundred students have attended college on athletic scholarships.

Without a replacement for the WAC, he said, his students could scatter to other programs or leave the sport.

"How can we let these guys go?" he said. "We can't. They're the future."

Armstrong acknowledges it could take up to two years or more to raise the money and complete construction on the new complex. He said he hopes Wilkinson's foundation could lease the WAC, which is being eliminated to clear the way for new construction, while the group works to raise money.

The decision to close the WAC comes at a time of transition for USA Diving, the sport's national governing body. After operating a national training center at The Woodlands before the 2004 Olympics, the federation moved the center to Indianapolis, where elite divers have the option to live and train year-round.

"In my estimation, that destroys the programs that those top divers come from," Armstrong said. "I don't want to steal divers. I want to help them in their programs so that we enhance their program and give instead of take. I don't want to compete with (USA Diving). I want to show them how to do it."

Armstrong's proposed new facility would retain the WAC's outdoor setting. The 10-meter platform, however, would be nestled under a roof, similar to the seating area at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion.

"I totally believe that if you can do it in outdoor conditions, that builds character going into situations where you have to deal with adversity," he said.

If his first center gets off the ground, Armstrong hopes to build at least five more around the country.

"This can be the system that we've needed," he said. "If we have it, I believe we can be competitive with China, not just individually but on a team level."

First, however, Wilkinson and Armstrong have to prove they can handle the daunting task of raising money between training sessions for the upcoming run toward the 2008 Beijing Olympics. And Wilkinson, after spending half her life in the sport, faces a commitment that will last well after her retirement as a competitor.

"I love the sport," she said. "I love it more now than I ever have, and leaving it will be hard. This will be a great way for me to stay connected."

Referring to two of her younger teammates, Kaylea Arnett and Michelle Cabassol, who joined in her birthday celebration, she added, "I can't imagine being the age of Kaylea and Michelle and having my dreams stripped away. I don't want that to happen. I'm going to fight for them. And I think Kenny's dream and vision is a way to make their dreams happen.

"Kenny has created an atmosphere where we are more than just people who train together. He has helped make my dreams come true for 15 years. I want to make his dream come true."

On the Web: www.lwfound.org; www.woodlandsdiving.org  david.barron@chron.com