LONDON David Boudia was once desperately afraid of heights – particularly the three-story height of the platform used for the men’s high-dive competition in the Olympics.
On Saturday, he dove from that same 10-meter board with such flair under such pressure that he won an unlikely Olympic gold medal on his final dive – the first U.S. men’s individual diving gold medal since Greg Louganis in 1988.
Talk about scaling new heights. In a virtual three-way tie going into the final dive with British favorite Tom Daley and China’s Qiu Bo, Boudia pulled off the highest-scoring dive by any diver the entire night to win gold.
The Chinese diver finished second. Daley was such a happy bronze medalist that both he and a bunch of his friends on Great Britain’s diving squad celebrated by jumping into the pool. Duke’s Nick McCrory, who had teamed with Boudia for a bronze medal in 10-meter synchronized diving earlier in these Olympics, was ninth.
Ten years ago, when Boudia was first learning to dive, he would sometimes climb the 33 feet to the top and climb back down again. “You have to be crazy to jump off a three-story building and dive at 35 mph,” he said Saturday night.
Boudia, now a 23-year-old communications major at Purdue, first got brave enough to do flips and somersaults off the big board by drawing stick figures of each maneuver while he was supposed to be paying attention to his ninth-grade classes.
He was able to manage his fear by mapping out dives in that way, but said he didn’t totally conquer it until after he represented the U.S. in his first Olympics in 2008, finishing fifth in one event and 10th in another. After that, Boudia began seeing a sports psychologist who helped him, and he said his faith in God deepened and helped to stabilize him mentally.
Boudia nearly didn’t have a chance at his upset at all. On Friday night in the preliminaries, he was terrible. The field was cut that night from 32 divers to 18. Boudia finished 18th, barely scraping into the Saturday morning semifinals.
But the scores are wiped away after each round. Boudia was much better in the Saturday morning semifinals, finishing third behind the two Chinese divers.
China is diving’s version of the New York Yankees – if the Yankees were better. A sports reporter from the China Daily newspaper had bemoaned the fact in print that out of the seven diving events already held at these Olympics, China had won only six gold medals. Losing out on another gold would be unacceptable, the journalist concluded, writing that “six gold medals is like losing.”
But Chinese diver Lin Yue badly missed a dive early in the competition, knocking him out of medal contention. Daley got a rare “re-dive” on his first attempt after saying all the photo flashes from the sold-out crowd bothered him. “I wouldn’t have won the bronze medal without that,” Daley said.
By pre-determined order, Boudia followed Daley after every dive, usually while the crowd was still on its feet cheering its favorite son.
“I’m so glad I went after him,” Boudia said. “I’m an adrenaline junkie. Diving after Tom Daley and having 18,000 people erupt in the stands – my heart was racing. I was having so much fun out there.”
In the final round, Boudia, Daley and Qiu were far ahead of the other nine divers in the final. They would finish 1-2-3, but in which order?
Daley knew he was at a disadvantage, however. Divers can set up the order of their dives at their own discretion, and his final dive had a smaller degree of difficulty, making it harder for him to get a high score.
He scored just over 90 points. Then came Boudia, doing a back 2 ½ somersault with 2 ½ twists. He had purposely not looked at the scoreboard, so he didn’t know if he was ahead or behind.
“When I saw they were all pretty much tied going into the last dive, I knew David was going to end up on top,” McCrory, his diving partner, said. “Put him in that position, he’ll hit that dive… He dove out of his mind tonight.”
On Boudia’s final dive, he scored 102.60 – the best of the evening. The Chinese diver had a chance to tie or surpass him, but fell just short on exactly the same dive with a score of 100.80 – the second-highest score of the evening.
Boudia said the moment, as great as it was, would only be the second-best of his 2012. He gets married in October, and that will trump it, he feels sure.
But it was still quite a night. “It’s so surreal right now,” Boudia said. “I can’t believe I’m an Olympic champion.”