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Fear of heights doesn't keep Boudia down
Olympic hopeful David Boudia had just returned from competing in Russia, and so on Monday from the other end of the phone he allowed himself a moment to ponder whether or not the exhaustion had yet set in.
“I just got back from Russia last night,” he said. “I don’t really know what I am right now. I woke up at 6:45 and I’ve been zombie-ing all day. But it’s all good.”
It’s better than all good. The 22-year-old diver, zombie-ing or not, is on the verge of living the Olympic dream. His return from Russia, where he placed third in the individual 10-meter dive and second in synchronized, is the latest leg in a winding journey that juts from a boy’s childhood dream through fear, confusion, hope and, perhaps very soon, Olympic glory.
Boudia is a diver with a real chance to qualify for the 2012 London Games. He competed in Beijing, and did not medal then, but the mistakes he made in 2008 are more fuel for the trip he set himself on as a young boy.
“I was fairly young, I was still immature, and I was new to the whole atmosphere of the Olympic Games,” he said. “I was like a deer in the headlights. I got overwhelmed and got caught up in the hype of what the Olympics are about.”
That’s not surprising. His love of the Olympics started when Boudia was a young boy. He was watching the 1996 Games, and the marvel of men and women going to the opening ceremonies to represent their countries seized his imagination. He wanted that, that blending of a love for athletics and a love for country. He wanted in.
“I tried a lot of different sports,” he said.
He was more focused on the whole of the Games than a particular sport. He did not fall in love with one competition, learning to love the Games as a result. He went the other way around, a young kid infatuated with being an Olympian searching for the sport that could make it so.
When he settled on gymnastics he thought he’d found his avenue to his dream. But something was off.
“I just wasn’t passionate about the sport,” he said.
It was the Games he craved, and for whatever reason, his need for adrenaline, his acrobatic nature, and his zeal for athletics did not find the right fit in gymnastics. A friend suggested diving. Still a boy, he thought it might work ... until he got high on the board and felt the chill and fear of being so high. It was utterly paralyzing.
“You take an 11- or 12-year-old on a three-story building and tell them to jump off it and they’ll tell you you’re insane,” he said. “That was a huge obstacle for me and turning point in my career.”
It was time to pick a sport, to love one, to master it, to will his way through it to the Games. The fear was before him, yes, a fear of heights so paralyzing he would employ sports psychology in the years ahead to master it. But so was his burning hope of being an Olympian. He was just a kid, yes, but he was a kid who had to make a life-changing decision.
“Whether I was going to continue doing the sport — get over this fear and pursue my dream of the Olympics — or let the fear beat me and see my dream crumble.”
He chose to conquer his fear. A gymnastics coach told him to draw every movement, to visualize the dive as a way of working an end-around on the fear. It worked. Somehow that stroke unlocked enough courage to begin.
“When I got on the platform I’d already done the movement in my brain,” he said. “It really was mind over matter. There’s a quote that I’ve focused on: ‘What am I doing now that will get me to the future?’ That was it.”
This was no overnight fix. He saw a sports psychologist who helped him put a leash on his fear, and over time — over four or five years — his body became accustomed to those moments in which it was so dizzyingly high. It was muscle memory now working with his mind to no longer be afraid.
There are no sure things in the Olympics. He and his synchronized diving partner, Nick McCrory, stand a strong chance to qualify for the Olympics as a team. Both will also use the trials in June to try and qualify as individuals.
In diving, particularly synchronized, there’s often a crowded field of contenders. That means anything can happen — including Boudia realizing his life’s dream with an Olympic medal.
“Ultimately there’s a really good chance of me medaling,” Boudia said. “Diving is a sport where on any given day there’s eight of us guys who can contend for that gold medal.
“I can’t guarantee outcomes at the Games in London, but I do know it’s been an awesome road and I’ve been fighting and working hard towards it.”
You can follow Bill Reiter on Twitter or email him at email@example.com.
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