COLUMBIA — Nine years ago, Missouri diving coach Jamie Sweeney saw championship potential in an 11-year-old.
He is still seeing that potential in David Bonuchi, who is now a sophomore at MU.
The two have been working together since Bonuchi started diving.
Bonuchi grew up in Columbia and graduated from Hickman High School in 2010. Rather than leaving Columbia after graduation, he chose to stay with Sweeney and dive for the Tigers.
"People don't realize how good of a coach Jamie is," Cathy Bonuchi, David's mother, said. "He can take a kid who is a marginal diver in the junior league and take him all the way and make him into an NCAA All-American."
Sweeney and David Bonuchi have traveled together to numerous national and international meets. The time they spent together on these trips gave way to a friendship that extends beyond diving.
"I care about life outside of the pool a lot with him because he is like a brother to me," Sweeney said. "I've got a special place for that kid in my heart."
When David Bonuchi got to Hickman, he trained with Sweeney year-round for USA Diving competitions and competed for the Kewpies in the winter.
During high school, he went on recruiting trips across the country but ultimately decided to stay with Sweeney.
"It was tough because I wanted to leave home," David Bonuchi said. "But he's like my best friend, and I can always count on him to pull me through anything. The reason I came here was because of him, and I knew he could take me anywhere."
The two have been together since the day David Bonuchi's father, Jim, brought his 11- year old son to the Missouri Diving Club, where Sweeney was coaching. David Bonuchi had a cyst on his wrist and could no longer do gymnastics. Diving was a sport in which he could put some of his gymnastics skills to use.
Sweeney said the first time he met David Bonuchi he had already heard from another coach that he was really talented.
He quickly realized that David Bonuchi could do dives really well the first time he tried them, something that still holds true today.
"He's something special when it comes to the sport of diving," Sweeney said. "Honestly, it's what he can bring to the table mentally. He's an unbelievable competitor, and his mind and his body just understand the sport of diving."
But success didn't immediately come to David Bonuchi as easily as a new dive.
"Actually, at my first nationals I got dead last," he said. "Ever since then, I decided I was going to push myself as hard as I can to reach the elite level."
Now, David Bonuchi is at the elite level.
He won three state championships at Hickman and is a six-time USA International Team member.
In March, David Bonuchi was the only freshman diver to qualify for a final at the NCAA Men's Swimming and Diving Championships, and he qualified for two. He placed fourth in the platform event and eighth in the 3-meter.
When asked if he was surprised by David Bonuchi's success, Sweeney vigorously shook his head and said no.
"That's where he has fun," Sweeney said. "The bigger the meet, the better the David."
David Bonuchi has a big meet looming in June. He has already qualified for the 2012 Olympic Trials on all boards. The meet will be held June 18 to 24 in Federal Way, Wash. He is working on four new dives in preparation.
David Bonuchi spent last summer training in Arizona with two well-respected coaches, one a 1984 Olympic silver medalist, while Sweeney spent time with his new baby.
Cathy Bonuchi said her son went there to try something different. He learned some new things, she said, but they didn't understand him like Sweeney does.
"They're brothers," Cathy Bonuchi said with a smile.
She said that Sweeney is one of the best coaches in the country because he develops divers. Other "good" coaches just take winners and maintain them.
Now a sophomore, David Bonuchi knows that Columbia is where he needs to be.
"David is the potential Olympian he is because of Jamie," said Jim Bonuchi. "We're excited for both of them."