For much of my life, I bowed at the feet of gods fashioned of gold, silver and bronze.
The 1996 Olympics were the first ones I can remember watching, when I was 7 years old. I was competing in gymnastics myself at the time, so watching the Magnificent Seven win the first U.S. gold medal in the women’s team competition stoked my competitive fires. From that point forward, competing in the Olympics became my focus, my dream, my god. I was going to be an Olympian. Not only that, I was going to win, and I would revel in the fame and the celebrity it brought.
Even though I didn’t know the Lord at that time, God had given me the ability to be super disciplined and the desire to work extremely hard to accomplish a goal. I shifted my focus from gymnastics to diving a few years later, and in 2004 I narrowly missed making the Olympic team. Then in 2008, at age 19, I had my chance. I qualified for Beijing. My dream was coming true.
In reality, the dream was more like a nightmare. It nearly ruined my life. My synchronized diving partner and I failed to make the podium early in the Beijing Olympics, and that was a reality check. I decided to invest everything in my individual event a few days later, near the end of the Games – all my thoughts, all my energy, everything. I locked myself in my room and kept away all outside distractions. I attended few events. I was at the Olympics, but I saw the inside of my room in the Olympic Village more than I experienced the whole Olympic atmosphere. Still, I figured that was a small price to pay for the immortality that would soon be mine after I medaled in my individual event.
Instead of medaling, I finished 10th. I failed. I’ve never cried as much as I did after that event. I let my country and USA Diving down. I thought I had disappointed my team, my parents, and everyone who had invested in me. I didn’t get what I set out to accomplish, so I felt like a complete and utter failure. At a dinner party after my event, everyone was eating and having fun. I locked myself in a bathroom stall and bawled for an hour.
That’s what happens when your god betrays you.
The Olympics didn’t supply me with any joy. They didn’t provide the happiness that I thought they were going to bring. It was like a punch in the gut. My world was completely shaken.
After Beijing, I decided to try to put the Olympics behind me and get a fresh start as a freshman at Purdue. Because I didn’t go to a “normal” high school and didn’t have many “normal” relationships during my teenage years, I tried to make up for that by getting as many friends as I could. The only way I knew how to do that was living the party lifestyle. That’s an easy thing to do on a college campus. Though I was battling depression, I was able to mask it by trying to be the popular guy on campus. Since people knew I was an Olympian, this was a chance for me to get the fame and the glory that I craved.
But like my experience with the Olympics, that pursuit proved hollow. I was drinking heavily by my sophomore year, with my satisfaction always coming from the next drink. That satisfaction was fleeting, and life began to make less and less sense. Why do I need to practice? Who cares about the Olympics? Why am I here, and what am I doing? These questions haunted me continually.
One Saturday in the fall it all came to a breaking point. Purdue was hosting Notre Dame for a football game, and several of my friends and I tailgated throughout the day. I decided to take a nap before the game. I woke up and was such a wreck that I couldn’t even get out of bed. My life was in chaos.
My friends came to my room and tried to encourage and cajole me to join them at the game, but I shut them out and told them to go away. Football seemed completely pointless. I texted one of my teammates. Though she used to engage in all the hedonistic pursuits that I did, I had noticed lately that she had stopped. Something was different about her.
“Talk to Adam,” she replied. “He can help.”
I texted Adam, my coach, and he asked if I could come over the next night. That visit at his house proved to be the start of real living for me.
Growing up as a nominal Catholic, I knew enough about God to argue that my problems had nothing to do with my relationship to him, as Adam suggested. I wanted him to give me a quick answer that would fix what was happening in my life.
But that’s not what he did. He gave me Jesus instead.
Adam and his wife began sharing the gospel with me – the good news that though I was a sinner, and though my personal problems were a direct result of my rebellion against a holy God to whom I was accountable, the Lord nevertheless loved me and had done everything necessary to secure my salvation. God himself came to earth in the person of Jesus Christ to live a sinless life and die a gruesome death on the cross – taking my sin upon himself and bearing God’s wrath against it for me. Christ then rose from the dead, conquering sin and hell and Satan forever. They told me what the purpose of the cross was and what Christianity was all about.
As I sat in their rocking chair listening to them talk, it was like plugs popping out of my ears. I was receptive to what they were saying and not turned off by it. Over the weeks ahead, I began learning more about the Bible, about Christ and who he was. I learned about our sin problem and why Christ came. I began to understand that I was a faulty, rebellious creature who was sinning against a holy, perfect God. I knew that the only way I would reign with him and live forever was by having Christ in my life.
That’s when my life totally transformed. From that first Sunday when Adam and his wife shared the gospel with me, I didn’t want to go out and party anymore. Instead I desired to talk to them more. I desired to read the Bible more and go to church – and I hated going to church previously. I loved being involved with anything that had to do with Bible.
I don’t think I was converted that night. I don’t think I fully understood what my sin was. I still don’t, for that matter. But from the time they talked to me that Saturday, I was broken over my sin. I felt filthy, and ultimately cried out to God for his forgiveness.
Initially, my conversion had a detrimental effect on my diving. My sport seemed so insignificant and unimportant compared to the weighty, eternal matters I was investigating. I preferred to spend my time learning about Christ rather than thinking about diving. Diving practice? I’d rather sleep or read about Jesus.
But – after a couple of months of that – the more I started to understand God, the more serious I got about diving. Along with Adam, one of the pastors at my church was discipling me and teaching me what my purpose was. As I learned about that, I started to transition that into my athletic career. I realized that God had given me this ability and this platform for a specific reason – and that was to bring him glory. So I needed to do all I could to glorify him through my practice, through my competitions, through media – all of it.
Because of the work that Christ had done in my heart, my diving was transformed. I continued to develop my skills, and in 2012 I once again made the Olympic team. This time, however, things were different. I didn’t go to the London Olympics desperately seeking to win a gold medal. I went to London desperately seeking to honor the Lord, to minister to my teammates and fellow competitors, and to enjoy the experience for what it was.
And strangely enough, with that as my new focus, God saw fit to give me the one thing I had sought for so long. I won a gold medal. That’s not to say that God will always give us what we want if we make him the priority in our lives. He may, or he may not. It is to say that God is a gracious, loving father who does good things for his people.
In these pages, you’ll read my story, which is simply a testimony to God’s grace. When I was desperately chasing everything other than God, he loved and pursued me anyway. Now he has given my life a new meaning and purpose – namely, to pursue him and to know him more deeply. I’m not perfect by any means. I still struggle with temptations. Some of them are likely common to everyone. Some of them may be more specific to athletes.
Regardless, God has given me a heart that wants to know him and make him known. The platform he’s given me to do that is diving. I’m married now and have a baby daughter, and I expect to defend my gold medal at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Whether I become the first men’s diver since Greg Louganis to repeat as Olympic champion is yet to be seen. But what’s clearly evident, and what God has demonstrated through my life, is that he alone is the one who is mighty to save.