Game-time decisions are most commonly heard of in football, basketball and baseball. However, in college diving, it can be a critical factor in winning an event, just as it was for junior diver Steele Johnson at this year’s NCAA swimming and diving championships, held at the University of Minnesota over the weekend.
Coming off a second-place finish in the 1-meter event, Johnson won his fifth NCAA championship because of a late game-time decision.
From early November to late January, Johnson was sidelined with a major foot injury that caused him to wear a boot and ride a scooter, bearing no weight to expedite the healing. However, this wasn’t a new issue. He’s been competing on a stress fracture in his foot since the fall of 2015.
And he managed to win two NCAA titles and an Olympic silver medal despite the injury.
“I don’t know how I’m able to do it,” Johnson said after returning from the NCAA championships. “Honestly, there’s no reason why I should be walking right now. The stress fracture we found in 2015 was bad. And it’s not as bad now, but just a few months ago back in November, it was worse than it ever was.”
As it grew worse, he was still able to compete and win titles. Johnson believes his continued success comes from a higher power, which is a dictating role in his life.
“It was bad at the Olympics,” Johnson said, “it was bad at the world championships, but honestly it’s not by my power that I’m walking. I think God’s really put his hand over my foot, cause I feel called to be a diver.”
Yet when the championship meet came down to the wire, it was Johnson’s decision to change the plan. Going into his final dive in the 3-meter event, he was down 8.85 points to Tennessee’s Colin Zeng and in place to win a bronze medal in the event for which he was the defending national champion.
His plan was to complete a 3 1/2 pike at a degree of difficulty of 3.1. Even with a perfect score, it wouldn’t be enough to capture the title. He had to go all in to win, and that’s when the plan changed.
“I knew I would not be able to win unless (Zeng) missed his dive really badly,” Johnson said. “So I walked over to (head diving coach Adam Soldati) and he’s like, ‘We’re gonna have to do the front 4 1/2,’ and I knew that going into it, cause I’d been diving well, but not as well as I’d hoped leading up to that point. And so I just went into it with the mindset of ‘I need to do this dive, I need to do it well.’”
What’s even more amazing about the dive is the story behind it. The Olympian had yet to successfully complete the dive, either landing on his stomach or in a cannonball every time he attempted it.
During last year’s Big Ten Championships, Johnson made a similar change. Going from a 3 1/2 pike to a 4 1/2 front tuck, he was able to capture only a bronze medal.
“I needed those 114 points back then,” Johnson said, “which is a perfect front 4 1/2, just to get a medal and this time I needed less than that to get a gold, so I was honestly a lot more chill now than I was then. Just knowing in my mind we had done this in the past and we had been successful in the past with it gave me a lot of confidence going into it, knowing we’ve done it before, we can do it again.”
What makes college so unique is the ability to change dives at the last second, literally. In the world championships and Olympics, dive sheets must be sent in over 24 hours before competing, not allowing divers to change their set based on their place in the standings.
With five NCAA titles to call his own, Johnson is ready to step out of the shadow of Olympic champion and former Purdue diver David Boudia, who has been his mentor throughout college.
“My goal by next year is to hopefully get one more just to tie David’s record, that would be really exciting for me,” Johnson said. “Even having five now, it’s not just following in David’s footsteps, but trying to lead a new generation into this, especially now that I’m doing a lot more 3-meter and 1-meter diving. David was a 10-meter diver, obviously very successful on 1-meter and 3-meter in NCAAs, and 10s as well. But I feel like I’m starting to become a springboard diver and try to pave the way for the future high school athletes that are going to be coming in the future, so to have something to work towards, not just David’s six NCAA titles.”
Now that Johnson has time to let his foot completely heal with the season over, he is already looking forward to another big event in his life, the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
“The foot’s getting better, I’m getting stronger, my leg’s getting stronger,” Johnson said. “I think we’re in a position now where we can continue to train all the way through Tokyo.”