Nerves of Steele, Part I: Johnson’s Journey

By Ernie Geigenmiller

This is Part 1 in a series on Olympic diving hopeful Steele Johnson as he arrives at Federal Way, WA, home to the 2012 US Diving Olympic Team Trials.

At age 2, Steele Johnson decided he loved doing front flips. Two years later, he stunned his parents again by performing back flips. As time marched on, it was clear he loved to leap off high places and had an affinity for the water.

“Mom thought I was getting dangerous,” Johnson said. “So she enrolled me in a diving class when I was 8. She wanted to make sure I didn’t hurt myself.”

Once he started diving, it became his passion, and eventually the soccer cleats and lacrosse gear were put away. Diving became his focus.

A diver was born.


Steele at 14
10-time national champion, Steele Johnson, competes
in Germany earlier this year. He turns 16 this Saturday.

He recalls those first few weeks of diving practice near his Carmel, Indiana home. “For the first two weeks of diving, we were just jumping off boards,” he said. “It was fun.”

He took a real liking to the sport and within three years, the young diver began traveling with elite athletes who were much older. His first traveling event was at Harvard in 2007 when he was just 11 years old.

“There I was, not even five feet tall,” he recalled. “And I was standing on the 10 meter platform with college kids. It was so intimidating to be so small and stand on that platform. And it was awkward, too. None of my teammates would talk to me, and I was lonely. So, I just focused on getting the job done.”

He got the job done, and swept both events.

He then went onto London and won two gold medals and a silver.

“I absolutely love to dive,” Johnson said. “It’s a great sport, and I’ve been blessed with great coaches, and supportive family and friends.”

Johnson is coached by John Wingfield, who is the Head Coach for the USA Diving Team. He has trained with Olympians David Boudia and Thomas Finchum and feels blessed to be associated with such great people.


Steele and Toby
Steele Johnson, bottom, does the 10m synchro
with diving partner Tobias Stanley. This is
one of the events he will compete in this upcoming
week at the Olympic Trials in Federal Way, WA.

His diving team practices six days a week from 7:30 am to 3:30 pm (Saturday is a half day) and then he does schoolwork through the Laurel Springs Academy, which is a home school program that helps elite athletes. The team does “dryland” practice for two hours a day (trampoline, dryboard, mats, conditioning, weight training) and then hits the pool to dive.

Johnson started turning heads in 2008 when he swept all events at a Junior National competition. A year later, he competed in the Junior Pan American Games and placed fourth in the 3-meter synchro, second in the 1-meter and got gold in the 3-meter and platform dives. In 2011, he won four golds and one silver at Junior Nationals.

He’s also trained and spent time with Olympic diver and gold medalist, Greg Louganis. And one NBC sports commentator hailed him as “part of the future of diving.”

“That’s a big honor,” Johnson said of the comment. “But I just think of it as what I do every day. This is a God-given gift I’ve been blessed with. And it’s a lot of hard work, early mornings and lots of late nights, but it’s all worth it … I get my drive from the love I have for the sport.”

Sports Illustrated posted a brief on Johnson in their Faces in the Crowd section last September: “ Steele, a sophomore at Laurel Springs, won gold medals in four of five events at junior nationals in Knoxville, Tenn., to become a 10-time national champion and earn a spot on the U.S. team at this week’s Junior Pan-Americans. He won individual gold in the three-meter and platform events and paired with Dashiell Enos to win the synchronized three-meter and platform. A week later he was the youngest diver at nationals to advance to the men’s individual platform finals, finishing sixth.”

US Diving Buddies
Steele Johnson with fellow members of the US Diving Team.  Steele
is standing between diving partners Tobias Stanley (left) and Dashiell Enos.

He qualified for the Olympic Trials in 2010 by scoring in the top 12 at Junior World’s competition for the 10m platform. In 2011, his accomplishments at Summer Junior National’s qualified him for every diving event that is happening next week.

And that brings him to the Olympic Trials, which begin June 17. It’s a tough competition. Approximately 120 divers are competing for 14 spots on the US Olympic Diving Team.

Several sports writers are touting him as a favorite for the 2016 Olympic Games, and believe the Federal Way trials will be a good experience for the soon-to-be 16-year-old. Johnson will compete in the Men’s 10m Platform Individual and the Men’s 10m Syncro (with Tobias Stanley and Dashiell Enos). He thinks they all make a great team.


With Coach
Steele Johnson won a gold medal at the Pan American Games
in Columbia in 2011.

“It’s going to be a tough competition,” said Johnson. “If I go and do every dive the best I can, I will get a spot on the Olympic team. I will have a smile on my face, I will be focused and I will do the best I can.”

When he spoke those words, his demeanor turned into what I would call a gracious confidence, or a calm determination. It was like my experience a few days ago with one of my baseball players. I asked him to do his best, and get a base hit. His reply: “Coach, I’m going to hit a triple.” And he did. But as he spoke those words to me his eyes and whole demeanor exuded a pure and calm confidence.

Steele exuded that same confidence – no cockiness, overconfidence or any element of fear. I can only guess, but he must have been thinking: “I’m good at this, I will do it – it’s what I’ve been preparing to do. I’m ready.”

I used the term “gracious confidence” to describe his remarks because there was an element of humility and gratitude in his voice. He sounded grateful to have these gifts, and confident he could get the job done.

This teenager has a steely resolve.

The next article will focus on the specifics of his dives, the aura of the Olympics and Johnson’s budding second career in front of, and behind the camera.


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