September 7, 2018 : By Ted Allen - Liberty University News Service
Steele Johnson may be famous for becoming a U.S. Olympic medalist, but he would rather be known simply as a child of God.
Johnson, 22, who placed second with teammate David Boudia in synchronized 10-meter diving at the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Brazil, brought his silver medal to Friday’s Convocation at the Vines Center. But what really captivated the crowd was his testimony.
Johnson shared how a diving injury at age 12 nearly killed him. While practicing a reverse three-and-one-half tuck, he hit his head on a 10-meter platform causing him to freefall 33 feet and plunge into the water headfirst. The injury required 33 staples on his scalp and left him with memory issues.
Eight years later Johnson performed that same dive to near perfection in Rio, securing the silver medal.
“It’s cool to see how God can use something that life throws at you, something horrible, something that could absolutely take you out for the rest of your life or end your life, and He can use it for good later on down the road,” Johnson said.
A video that played before Johnson was introduced at Convocation showed him crying after emerging from the water following the dive that qualified him for the 2016 Olympics. It was a moment that he said symbolized the spiritual transformation that occurred in his life the previous year after encountering Jesus Christ personally. Before that, his identity had been wrapped up in his sport, he said, which he practiced relentlessly to realize his Olympic dreams.
“I wasn’t crying because I was happy I made the Olympics … and all my dreams had come true,” Johnson said. “It was myself mourning the way I was living … all the days and hours and months I spent stressing about this one thing.”
Johnson said God reminded him that his performance as an athlete still wasn’t as important as his relationship with Him.
“I just came up out of the water … and God really revealed Himself and His identity for me in that moment. It was like, ‘Hey, you’re Steele Johnson, you’re an Olympian now, but that doesn’t mean a thing. It’s all about the fact that I sent my Son to die for you — not because you’re going to be an Olympian, but because I care about you and I love you, and no matter what you do or what you say, it is not going to make Me love you any less.’”
On Thursday, Johnson gave an encouraging talk to the Lady Flames’ swimming & diving team during their afternoon practice at the Liberty Natatorium. He later prayed with them poolside after showcasing his skills off the 3-meter springboard and 10-meter platform, even performing some synchronized dives with team members.
“It’s not every day you get an Olympic medalist on your pool deck,” said Liberty Head Coach Jake Shellenberger, who had the opportunity to pray for Johnson at the close of Convocation.
Lady Flames Diving Coach Tori Lamp Wood was a member of the U.S. National Team with Johnson.
“Diving is a really close community,” she said. “His testimony is fantastic, and it’s great for the team to see somebody from our sport, which is a little bit more unique, and to meet somebody of his caliber and be inspired by that and know not to give up.”
Johnson said he was awed by the new natatorium, built in 2017. It features a separate diving well and a tower featuring 1- and 3-meter springboards and 5-, 7.5-, and 10-meter platforms.
Also during Convocation, the university announced Spain as the chosen country for this year’s G5 initiative. The initiative, based on the principles of Galatians 5, is a university-wide effort to support a specific country each year through outreach and engagement opportunities. In Spain, Liberty will partner with Christar International, a service organization that works with refugees, and International Studies Abroad, an academic program that will offer new opportunities for students to learn about Spanish culture. For more information on how to get involved, visit the G5 Spain website.