As any Olympic athlete will attest, the road to the podium is far from glamorous. Before the awards and the accolades, those athletes had to endure grueling training sessions, career-threatening injuries, and make countless personal sacrifices.
American diver Steele Johnson nearly lost his life while pushing the limits of his body during a practice session. But after an incredible comeback, Steele made an unbelievable confession about what he really sacrificed in pursuit of his dream…
Passion And Talent
When Steele Johnson was just 7 years old, he started competitive diving and quickly fell in love with the sport. Between the Indianapolis, Indiana native’s passion and his natural talent, Steele quickly progressed in the sport and started mastering more advanced skills.
A Promising Beginning
Within a few years, Steele started making a name for himself during competitions. When it became clear to Steele, his coaches, and his parents that he could really excel in the world of competitive diving, he focused even more of his energy on his training…
5 Years Later…
By the time Steele was just 12 years old, he was practicing his diving at Indiana University’s Counsilman Billingsley Aquatic Center and was working with John Wingfield, his private coach, to help him reach his goal of making it to the Olympics one day.
At every practice, Steele was determined to beat himself and master more difficult dives. Steele was successful because he loved pushing himself, but, at times, it meant the 12-year-old was attempting skills that were too advanced for his skill level…
The 3 ½ Somersault Dive
While practicing at Indiana University on January 21, 2009, Steele attempted to do a 3 ½ somersault dive, which was far too advanced for him at that point in his career. That afternoon, Steele’s ambition nearly cost him his diving career and his life.
A Tragic Mistake
As the name suggests, the diver must jump off the platform and complete 3 ½ rotations before diving head-first into the water. However, when Steele attempted the dive, he made the tragic mistake of not jumping far enough away from the platform…
As Steele started to spin in the air, his head struck the concrete platform and his scalp ‘ripped in half.’ The hit knocked him unconscious and Steele fell 33 feet through the air until hitting the water head first. Steele quickly started sinking to the bottom of the pool, but thankfully his coach was close by.
Fighting To Keep Him Alive
Steele’s coach, John Wingfield, dove into the pool, pulled Steele up to the surface. Once out of the water, Wingfield held Steele’s head together to prevent him from bleeding out and to stop chlorine from getting into the wound, which could have caused brain damage…
Wingfield held Steele’s head together until paramedics finally arrived and rushed the 12-year-old to the hospital. Once in the emergency room, doctors stapled Steele’s head back together and diagnosed him with a minor concussion before letting him go home that same night.
“John Wingfield saved my life,” Steele said after the accident. “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…”
A Traumatic Experience
“There’s a lot of factors that could’ve made this worse and I think if it had gone any worse, I wouldn’t have made it,” Steele said. “When something like that happens in your life, a near-death experience, you don’t know where you’re going to be going with your life.”
A Month Later
“I could have stopped diving, I could have gone back to middle school and just been a normal kid and played different sports like football or soccer,” Steele said. However, after a few weeks without diving, Steele already missed it. Just 1 month after the accident, Steele was back on the platform practicing for competitions…
Because of the concussion, Steele didn’t remember much of the actual accident. He’s seen some photos but has never actually watched the footage of his near-death experience. “It was on TiVo, but my coach deleted it right away because we didn’t want that to ever get out,” Steele said.
After starting his training, Steele began competing again and went on to win NCAA titles that same year. Later, he became a 15-time junior national champion, a 4-time champion at the Junior Pan American Games, a 6-time senior national champion with USA Diving, and a bronze medal winner at the FINA Diving World Cup…
A Big Secret
Steele later enrolled at Purdue University, and during his freshman year, he won a variety of awards including the Purdue Male Athlete of the Year and 2-time All American. Steele also won the World Championships Qualifier that year but was struggling with a big secret.
The entire time, Steele had hidden the fact from almost everyone that he was still suffering side effects from the accident. The head injury had damaged both his short and long-term memory. “I just kind of hid it from everyone for the past few years,” said Steele, who never told his parents or his new coach at Purdue, Adam Soldati, about the memory loss…
The only person Steele told about his injury was his girlfriend. “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,” Steele said. “It’s getting better. But a lot of stuff before 2008, I kind of have an issue with.”
Despite Steele’s struggle with his memory, he went on to compete in the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. While in Rio, Steele won a silver medal with teammate David Boudia for men’s synchronized 10-meter platform diving, and finally opened up for the first time about his memory loss…
“I wanted to be the kid that had the big injury and came back from it and made the Olympics and all that stuff,” Steele said. “But now I’ve kind of realized that God had his hand over all of it… Yes, I had that accident. I had that injury. It happens. But I still had the ability to dive, and I still had the passion for diving. So now it’s gone from a selfish desire to be like some cool story to a selfless desire, like, God kept me alive and He is still giving me the ability to do what I do.”
Only Getting Stronger
After winning his silver medal, Steele continued his training in the hopes of making it to another Olympic games. Today, Steele’s favorite dive is the 3 ½ somersault dive. “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,” Steele said. “The cool part of the story is, something that almost killed me has become the thing that I’m best at.”