Steele Johnson returns to diving after difficult year out of competition

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When Olympic silver medalist Steele Johnson mounts the 10-meter platform on Tuesday and dives off the equivalent of a three-story building, he will be doing so in competition for the first time in nearly a year and following two foot surgeries.

“I don’t have much expectations for this week,” he said.

Johnson promises not to look at his scores during the U.S. Diving Championships, which will determine the team for July’s world championships. He vows not to watch his competitors.

“I perform best when I have no idea where I’m at,” Johnson said, noting he didn’t know whether he and David Boudia were in medal contention in the Rio Olympic synchronized platform until their last dive. “I perform my worst when I’m really thinking about the scores I need to get to pass someone else, or I’m worrying about what the other divers are going.”

These nationals (TV schedule here) will be familiar and foreign for Johnson, who recently decided to forego his last season at Purdue to turn professional. This week’s meet is in Indianapolis, just an hour’s drive down Interstate 65 from West Lafayette.

But Johnson will not be competing with Boudia in Tuesday’s synchro platform. Boudia, a four-time Olympic medalist, switched to the springboard after a February 2018 concussion. Johnson hopes to reunite with Boudia in synchro springboard for a Tokyo 2020 run, but he’s not ready to add that event yet.

Johnson feels fortunate to be competing at all. In February 2015, a stress fracture was found in his right foot. The pain was manageable, so he put off potential surgery. By September 2018, he would go under the knife, finding a new, more serious stress fracture had developed.

Four months after the surgery, Johnson still couldn’t put any weight on the foot. It had healed completely, but inserted screws were causing inflammation. The screws were removed 15 weeks ago in a follow-up procedure. Johnson was forced to miss all of what would have been his final NCAA campaign.

“It turned out to be the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” said Johnson, who at 12 years old ripped his head in half hitting the platform on a reverse three-and-a-half somersault, which led to some memory problems. “I’ve never had something so adverse … just to be able to stand on my feet again.”

He still can’t run on the foot, but he’s been diving his competition list for two weeks and with synchro partner Ben Bramley for a week and a half.

“Not the most time on my feet so far,” Johnson said, “but that being said, back on 10-meter and into competition form a lot quicker than anticipated.”

Johnson believes he can contend for one of two individual platform spots on the world team, decided Friday and Sunday, even though he has less difficult dives than the favorites.

“The Olympics aren’t this year, so my goal was, if I can just compete at this nationals, see where the rest of the field was at, see what I need to work on, that would be good enough for me,” he said.

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