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Jul23FriOlympic diver Steele Johnson ignored the "what ifs?" and focused on the "why nots?" July 23, 2021 by Jayne Thurber-Smith
"Everyone has moments in their lives when unexpected things occur. It’s the unexpected happening to us, whether by choice or chance, that can shape who we are if we let it,” says Steele Johnson as he displays his silver medal in synchronized diving from the 2016 Summer Olympics.
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The unexpected occurrence to which he refers was a horrific accident he experienced at the age of 12 in 2009. While attempting a relatively new dive, a reverse 3½ somersault off the 10-metre plat form, Steele hit his head on the concrete platform in the first rotation. Unconscious, he was rushed to the emergency room where they pieced his head back together with 33 staples.
Since the accident, Steele has gone on to complete that dive hundreds of times.
“That injury could have negatively shaped who I was for the rest of my life,” he reflects. “I could have decided not to be a diver, and not had any trust in myself to do what I could do or in anyone else to lead me where I needed to go. But because I didn’t let that moment stop me, I was able to continue to pursue and achieve my dream.”
Sharing his comeback story gave Steele confidence going into his first Olympic competition. The dive that almost took him out of diving ended up being one of his best dives at trials.
“I told myself, ‘No, you can’t back down from any of your dives right now, because you didn’t back down seven years ago. If you had, you wouldn’t be diving at all!’ ” he says. “So why not put 100 percent into what I’m doing? I’ve already been through potentially the worst accident of my entire life. If that didn’t stop me, then what makes me think any dive can stop me now? I don’t think God created that accident, but I do know He really blessed it. It became a learning experience that I gained a lot from.”
To those who would question why bad things like that happen to good people like him, Steele comments that we all live in a fallen world where sad situations take place.
“But at the end of the day, we have to trust what the Bible says, that God is good and He is Lord,” he says. “He has our best interests in mind. He doesn’t cause our pain, but He can bring us out of it. He gives us the opportunity to lean on Him no matter what.”
Steele feels that he is a much better diver because of that crash into the concrete platform. It was the driving force to make him want to be better and work toward his Olympic dream.
“I knew that all of this might have been taken from me in a moment,” Steele says. “The fact that it wasn’t made me strive for greatness day after day. It inspired me to be the person God has created me to be, since He gave me the ability to dive.”
So Steele ignored the “what ifs?” and focused on the “why nots?” He teamed up with David Boudia, and the pair made it to a diving platform in Rio de Janeiro in the summer of 2016.
As the world watched, they recited Philippians 4:6: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” Then, in perfect symmetry, they executed a back 2½ somersault with 2½ twists in the men’s 10-metre synchronized diving competition, winning the silver medal.
On to Tokyo
Besides helping him medal in Rio, David also helped him increase his faith, along with Steele’s coach, Adam Soldati. Steele had grown up in church but had valued it mostly for its social aspect.
“David and Adam shared with me that going to church isn’t the most important thing, following God is,” says Steele. “When I was younger, when I prayed, I would focus on hoping God would give me what I wanted. Now, I actively seek and trust Him.”
Steele learned that actively pursuing God alone, in the quiet and unseen, was all he really needed.
“I understand without a doubt that He is enough for me, even if I never once went to the Olympics or even married my wife, Hilary,” says Steele. “All these are variables in life and, whether they happened or not, I can be joyful because I am seen, known, loved by God.”
He is now preparing for Tokyo 2021. With a wisdom beyond his 25 years, Steele knows that even if he doesn’t get what he thinks he wants, God will give him what’s best.
“When I started my Olympic journey, I used to think it was all I ever wanted,” he comments. “But you eventually find out the joy you’re searching for is not in medals. Your identity can’t just be found in being an Olympic diver, because that lasts only a few weeks every four years. We are designed to rest in the presence of God. That’s where our joy comes from.”
Sadly, Steele had to pull out of the Tokyo Olympics.
"This is hard for me to write," he says, "but I've unfortunately had to make the tough decision to pull out of all competition at the Olympic Truials due to my foot injury. I've endured two failed surgeries, years on and off crutches and have pushed as hard as I physically can, but unfortunately my foot is in too much pain to continue competing at Trials. The timing of this is devastating.
"I don't understand the timing of this, and may never know why the pain hit its critical point at the Olympic Trials, but I know that God is good and that there will be blessing in this decision. That being said, I need time to grieve this decision. I need time to grieve this pain. Pray for me."
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