ON THE VERGE: High Point

A champion junior diver heads for the deep waters of elite-level competition.

This month, Steele Johnson, a phenom-in-the-making from Carmel, will take on some of the country’s best divers at the USA Diving Winter National Championships in Knoxville, Tennessee. Even though Johnson, 15, will compete against Olympians, his coach, John Wingfield, expects him to medal in the individual and synchronized 10-meter platform events. (Wingfield should know: He coached the 2008 U.S. Olympic team.)
While young enough to compete at the junior level, Johnson already has leagues of experience in the sport. At age 3, he flipped off the diving board at a neighbor’s pool. By the time he was 4, he had taught himself to do a back flip. After he mastered an inward dive—leaving the board backward while flipping forward—his mother registered him at Starz Diving in Carmel, a feeder club for USA Diving’s primary training center at the IU Natatorium. At a 2006 junior competition, Johnson, not yet 10 years old, won the springboard events for the 11-and-under age group. The following year, he captured his first of 10 national titles.
By the time Johnson was 11, he was taking the 33-foot plunge off the 10-meter platform. “It’s scarier to jump off than to do flips,” he says. “If you’re jumping, you’re looking down the whole time. I’d rather do a three-and-a-half tuck. When I hit the water, it’s just comfortable.”
Now that he’s dipping a toe into senior-level competition, Johnson attends high school online and trains six days a week at the Natatorium. Workouts start at 7:30 a.m. and range from weights to ballet to, of course, several hours of diving. (On Mondays alone, he executes approximately 150 dives.) In 2009, he hit his head on the 10-meter platform, causing a concussion and a gash that required 33 staples. He returned to diving a month later. “Most people would have left the sport,” says Wingfield. “He’s a determined young man.”
Johnson recently took gold and silver in his age group at the 2011 Junior Pan American Championship. He’ll compete in the 2012 Olympic trials in Seattle this June, but mainly he’s focusing on perfecting his dives and making the 2016 team. “When I was 11 or 12, I’d watch members of the 2008 team practice,” he says. “It was really encouraging to see them rip every dive, and I was like, ‘I’m going to do that some day.’”
Name Steele Johnson
Age 15
Degree of Difficulty Above, Johnson nails dive 612B, an armstand forward one somersault pike, hitting the water at nearly 35 mph. He is also working on the notoriously difficult dive 5255B: In about 1.8 seconds, he does a back two-and-a-half somersault and two-and-a-half twists.
Star Potential “Steel is moving rapidly toward what I would suspect is international senior-level success,” says his coach, John Wingfield.
Photograph by Tony Valainis
This article appeared in the December 2011 issue.