ATHENS, Greece It was the stuff Olympic nightmares are full of: He was never out of last place; he hit the board on one dive; he scored a zero on another; he finished 291 points behind the leader.
When it was all finally over, when Utahn Justin Wilcock could pull a warm-up shirt over his aching back and leave his train wreck of an Olympics behind, the one thing he was happy about was that he did it.
"I left no unanswered questions," he said. "I'm glad I didn't pull out."
It was the same sentiment his mother, Kathy, had offered a few minutes earlier, sitting in the stands of the Olympic Aquatic Center with her husband, Scott, holding back tears: "At least he's finishing the race."
Olympic history is full of courageous performances in the face of injury. Stories like Shun Fujimoto, the Japanese gymnast who stuck a landing on a broken leg in 1976; or Kerri Strug, the American gymnast who landed a vault on a sprained ankle in 1996; or Greg Lougainis, the greatest diver of all time, who overcame a badly cut head in 1988. Those performances are memorable because a gold medal was on the line.
Wilcock's courage had a different motive: He simply did not want to quit. For 13 years, ever since he was 12 years old and his neighbor in Smithfield, Dwight Einzinger, invited him to try diving on his backyard trampoline miles from any bodies of water he'd trained and sacrificed to dive in the Olympics. He put off graduating from college two years ago so he could train full time with noted coach Ken Armstrong in Texas, his eye both his eyes fixated on Athens.
Through the U.S. Trials in June, when Wilcock qualified for the Olympics by placing second behind Troy Dumais, it all went like clockwork. But the day after his ticket to Athens was punched, Wilcock hit the weight room, and it was there miles from any bodies of water that he hurt his back.
The doctors said he suffered a stress fracture on the fifth lumbar. Bad enough if you're a bookkeeper; disaster if you're a diver. The only thing he could do was not do anything. He missed the national diving championships in July. For a month straight, he stayed away from diving boards altogether.
When he got to Athens almost a month ago with the U.S. diving team and things didn't feel much better, he had three separate epidural injections of cortisone. Feeling marginal improvement, he worked out sparingly but still approached the board as if it were a wasp's nest.
Then came Monday, the long-awaited and long-dreaded start of the men's 3-meter springboard competition. After a few minutes warming up, Wilcock walked up to Armstrong, the U.S. coach as well as his personal coach. "He had tears in his eyes and said, 'I can't do this,' " Armstrong said. "Then, 15 minutes later, he came back and said, 'No, I gotta try.' "
"At first I thought it just hurt too much and I made the decision I wasn't going to dive," Wilcock said. "Then I did a few dives and I thought, 'This has been a dream of mine since I was a kid.' I guess I was off the list a couple of minutes. I had the administrators going crazy."
He was the seventh diver of 32 entered, with the top 18 moving on to the semifinals. According to credentials he's established the past two years since taking temporary leave of his studies at Brigham Young University to work full time at diving, he should have easily been one of them. Wilcock's mom and dad flew in from Utah for The Moment. So did Carrie, his girlfriend from Texas. Even his youth coach at Salt Lake Aquatics Program Diving, Doug Jamison, who has since moved to New York, came to Greece to watch his one-time protege in his shining moment.
"He is an elegant, beautiful diver," Jamison said, sitting high in the spectator section with his wife, Kelli, a former junior teammate of Wilcock's. "He was a pleasure to coach. He always had the drive and the talent; he did everything he was asked. He could make the finals here. But his back's been hurting him, and he needs his back. It's critical to hold his alignment."
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