Indiana native Steele Johnson won a silver medal in the 10-meter synchronized diving on Monday, inching closer to conquering a sport that nearly killed him.
Johnson was just 12 years old and going through a routine diving practice at Indiana University in Jan. 2009 when he attempted a difficult 3 and 1/2 somersault dive. It would later become his favorite move, but that day it was too far advanced and nearly cost him dearly. As he began to spin in the air on the dive, Johnson’s head collided with the concrete platform. He fell unconscious and plunged 33-feet into the pool, hitting the water head first and sinking.
His coach, John Wingfield, dove in and saved him and Johnson was quickly rushed to the hospital. Johnson’s “scalp ripped in half” as he hit the water, and according to a video blog he posted on the anniversary of the incident earlier this year, Wingfield had to hold Johnson’s head together in the pool to keep the young diver from bleeding out and to keep the pool’s chlorine from seeping into the open wound and causing brain damage.
“With the amount of blood that I lost, it’s likely that I could’ve died… if I was maybe a centimeter closer to the platform, I could’ve fractured my skull. If I was going at a faster rate hitting the water, I could’ve torn more of my scalp open. There’s a lot of factors that could’ve made this any worse and I think if it had gone any worse, I wouldn’t have made it,” he said.
Johnson was transported to the hospital but he did not stay overnight after doctors determined he had miraculously only suffered a minor concussion. He has been hesitant to discuss the incident over the years, he said, especially when it came to the long and short-term memory loss that he suffered as a result. He still suffers from that ailment, he told reporters during U.S. diving trials this summer, and he only began to talk about it with his parents last spring. A Carmel, Indiana native, Johnson went on to dive at Purdue, but he never told his coach, Adam Soldati, about the memory loss.
“I just kind of hid it from everyone for the past few years,” Johnson said. “My girlfriend has recently helped me start to work on getting this memory back. Because if you tell me something two weeks ago, I probably won’t remember,” he told the Indianapolis star this summer.
Ultimately, Johnson chose not to let fear cripple his Olympic ambitions. He grew his hair out to cover up the scar. About a month after the incident, he was back on the diving platform, working on a craft that led to the podium on Monday. Johnson and his teammate, fellow Indiana native David Boudia, were consistent through all six rounds en route to winning silver behind China’s gold medal tandem.
“It’s crazy to think that this dive went from something that almost killed me to being my favorite thing to practice. When I’m up on the 10-meter, I’m not thinking about the time I hit my head, I’m thinking about how much I enjoy diving,” he said. “The cool part of the story is, something that almost killed me has become the thing that I’m best at.”