Bruce Kimball Drove to Fame but Dove to Tragedy
There are those who say that Bruce Kimball had been careering down that dark, dead-end road, headed for a crash, for a long time—maybe his whole life. A quiet, intense young man from a fiercely competitive Michigan family that had structured its life around the sport of diving, Kimball was one of the best divers in the world. He had won the silver medal at the ’84 Olympics, and, at 25, he was a contender for the gold in Seoul. Yet, by his standards, he was never good enough. He drove himself relentlessly—and perhaps because of the pressure he felt, at times he drank excessively. Then, early this month, he drove his car into a group of teenagers.
At 10:45 p.m. on Aug. 1, Kimball was on his way to drop his friend Chuck Wade off at his home in Brandon, Fla. Kimball turned onto Culbreath Road, where he lost control, smashed into a parked car and kept right on going. His silver Mazda RX-7 tore like a cannon shell through a crowd of 30 young people hanging out at the street’s end, known locally as the “Spot” Police say he was driving between 70 and 90 mph in a 35 mph zone. By the time the car came to a stop, it had left behind a bloody 380-foot trail of shattered glass, twisted metal and severed limbs. Two young men, Robert Bedell, 19, and Kevin Gossic, 16, were dead; an 18-year-old girl’s leg was crushed; and a 16-year-old boy’s leg was hanging by a thread. Four other youths were injured. Said Ken Garrison of the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office: “The last time I saw anything like this was in Vietnam.”
Kimball and his two passengers, his girlfriend, Colleen “Cokey” Smith, and Wade, also divers, were essentially unhurt. When police smelled alcohol on Kimball’s breath, they searched his mangled car and found eight empty beer containers. He admitted he’d been drinking off and on for six hours but denied that he was intoxicated, just as he denied he was doing anything like 70 mph. Yet according to an unconfirmed press report, Kimball’s blood alcohol test registered a .20—twice the legal limit.
Other revelations quickly followed. Between 1983 and 1986, Kimball had amassed five driving citations in Michigan and Florida. Michigan had suspended his license in August 1986, reinstating it nine months later. Some who knew them say Kimball and several fellow divers were notorious party animals and, in many cases, serious drinkers. Says one of Bruce’s old buddies: “I don’t know why his father didn’t check him into detox a long time ago.”
A portrait of Bruce Kimball is beginning to emerge that has never been featured on the sports pages. It’s a picture of a stubble-bearded young man peering down from a diving board, not into a placid pool, but into troubled waters, and in the background stands his father, the famous diving coach.
Dick Kimball, an excellent diver who did not quite make it to the Olympics, led all his children into the sport. But it was clear from the start that Bruce, the middle child, was the family’s great hope. Bruce was named for Bruce Harlan, Dick’s predecessor as coach at the University of Michigan, who died in a diving accident. When Bruce was a baby, the seat of his tiny bathing suit read Olympic Gold Medalist 1984. He started diving when he was 6 and placed 14th at the Olympic Trials at age 13. He was clearly a prodigy. But at what cost? According to Sammy Lee, former coach of Olympic champion Greg Louganis, when young Bruce failed to come in first, he would throw his runner-up medals at his father.
Then, on Oct. 18, 1981, the Kimballs’ hope was almost extinguished. A freshman at the University of Michigan, Bruce was returning from a wedding reception at 2:45 a.m. when an intoxicated driver crossed the center line and struck Bruce’s car head-on, hurling it backward 145 feet. The crash shattered every bone in the diver’s face, ruptured his spleen, shredded his left knee and broke his left leg. He endured 24 hours of surgery. He was fed intravenously and weighed just 107 lbs. when he came home from the hospital a month later.
Such was his obsession that it never occurred to Bruce that he wouldn’t dive again. During his first moments of consciousness, he told Dick of his eagerness to get back on the board. “His recovery was a combination of both him and Dick never giving up,” says Ben Fairman, Bruce’s coach at Pioneer High School in Ann Arbor, Mich. Indeed, Bruce told a reporter for the Ann Arbor News, “I never would have made it without my dad. He spent every night in the hospital with me.”
Fairman and others speak of the special bond between Dick and Bruce. The question is, was the father-son relationship, close as it was, totally beneficial? Dick Kimball is a rigid perfectionist. His daughter, Vicki, also a diving coach, once recalled her father diving from a 36-foot platform and landing flat on his stomach. Ignoring the pain in his quest for the perfect 10, Dick climbed up the tower again. “He landed on his stomach nine times in a row,” reported Vicki. ” ‘I didn’t do it right,’ he’d say, ‘so I gotta do it again.’ ”
Dick Kimball’s example must have been daunting to his son. Not only that, but some people question the wisdom of having a father coach his own child. “I think Dick and Bruce have done a tremendous job, but I think it’s real hard for Dick to say, ‘Bruce, mellow out,’ ” says their diving colleague Brian Bungum. “And you just can’t handle being perfect 100 percent of the time.”
It would seem, therefore, that Kimball’s life was less than idyllic long before he snuffed out the lives of two young people at the Spot. His behavior at the scene of the carnage was telling as well. Told that he’d killed two people, Kimball fell to his knees, and, according to bystanders, pounded his fists against the ground and sobbed, “Why me? Why me?”
What Kimball is going through now is anybody’s guess. Neither he nor his family offered condolences to the victims in the week following the crash. Bruce has been charged with two counts of vehicular homicide, each carrying up to five years in prison, and the charges could be raised to manslaughter. Bruce is said to be in seclusion in the Brandon area, not far from his father’s summer diving camp. Feelings against Kimball in the area are running high: An apparently unfounded rumor circulated that, showing no remorse, he was back on the board at the Brandon Swim and Tennis Club only hours after posting $10,000 bond. But according to his lawyer, Bruce is so distraught that he has been unable to eat or sleep.
Dick Kimball was there at the club the morning after, putting four of his five Olympic hopefuls through their paces. It’s not clear whether the fifth, Bruce Kimball, will ever be an Olympic champion. One wonders, in the wake of this tragedy, whether winning is so important to him anymore.
—By William Plummer, with Meg Grant in Brandon, Fla., and additional reporting by Benita Alexander in Ann Arbor