By Leslie Gaber
GoDuke the Magazine
Abby Johnston was six years old when she first set her sights on becoming an Olympian. She watched the U.S. women's gymnastics team capture the gold medal at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, and emphatically told her parents and friends that she too would one day don the red, white and blue on an Olympic stage.
Fast forward 16 years and Johnston and fellow Duke diver Nick McCrory are poised to fulfill that dream this summer at the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London.
Johnston and McCrory will travel to Federal Way, Wash. June 17-24 to contend for spots on the U.S. Olympic Team. After spending the 2011-12 season away from the Duke program in order to commit to a full-time training schedule, both divers aim to qualify for the national team in individual and synchronized diving events.
The 2011 NCAA champion in women's 3-meter springboard diving, Johnston also took ninth in the same discipline at the 2011 USA Diving Winter National Championships in December. She and synchronized diving partner Kelci Bryant, who previously competed in the synchronized 3-meter event at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, comprise one of the nation's top pairs. The two have been diving as a synchro team since 2010, and spent much of the past year traveling around the country and the world to practice together and compete at several international events.
"I feel like we got a better understanding of how each other likes to prepare for competition and in competition what our schedules are," Johnston says. "[Kelci] is a fierce competitor. She went to the 2008 Olympics and she was fourth there. She likes to win and she's incredibly consistent. It's nice to have that on my side."
One of the recent highlights for Johnston and Bryant came at the FINA World Cup in February. Held at the London Aquatics Centre - which will also serve as the site of the diving events at the 2012 Olympic Games - the World Cup represented the final opportunity for the United States to qualify a spot at the Olympics in the women's synchronized 3-meter event. Despite the pressure, Johnston and Bryant came through with a fourth-place finish to lock up the spot for the U.S. and keep their hopes of competing on the boards again in London alive.
"Just standing on those exact same boards - I've been there when the spotlight is on and there are thousands of people and the pressure's on, and I stood up and performed," Johnston said. "Getting that spot being fourth place was an incredible feeling and competing in that pool in front of thousands of people, it just fueled my fire to train and be back there again this summer."
Another positive indication for Johnston and Bryant heading into June's national team trials are the two medals they earned during the FINA Diving World Series this spring. As a team, Johnston and Bryant garnered silver and bronze on the Beijing and Moscow stops of the invitation-only international competition. They also added another medal to their growing collection in May, taking silver at the 2012 AT&T USA Diving Grand Prix.
Johnston hopes that of all her hard work and preparation over the past couple of years will pay off at trials - and ultimately land her back on the boards in London. While she and Duke diving coach Drew Johansen, who also serves as one of the coaches for the U.S. national team, have discussed Johnston's goal for quite some time, she says it is strange to think that the Olympics are now just a few short months away.
"It was just this terrifying thing of I've wanted it so badly for so long and I didn't know if it would ever happen," Johnston says. "In the past year, I've been able to say to people - they would say, 'Are you going to go to the Olympics?' And I would be like, 'Yeah, I might.' I've come to terms with the fact that it's all happening and I'm putting in all the effort I can. I'm doing everything I can and hopefully it works out in my favor."
Like Johnston, McCrory has also had his fair share of success on the boards this spring, something he hopes to replicate at the trials in June. A two-time NCAA champion in the men's platform event, McCrory too has spent the past year focusing solely on training and competition under Johansen's tutelage. He and David Boudia form one of the nation's premier men's synchro teams at the 10-meter height, as evidenced by their numerous achievements in over two years competing together.
After taking fifth on the platform at last summer's FINA World Championships in Beijing, McCrory and Boudia took gold at the 2012 USA Diving Winter National Championships and picked up a gold and silver during the four-leg FINA Diving World Series this spring. They also locked up a spot for the U.S. in the men's synchronized platform diving event with a fourth-place finish at the FINA Diving World Cup in London.
All of the traveling and competing has been a grind, but McCrory says the experience was valuable in preparing for what lies ahead.
"At every single competition, I was competing against the same people in my event, and those are the people that are going to be at the Olympics," he said. "You learn how they compete and you learn about yourself - how to compete with them. You're dealing with jet lag and fatigue, but everyone's in the same boat. It was a really great experience. It also gives the diving world even more opportunities to see you dive, so it's good exposure."
McCrory has also excelled individually on the platform over the past year, finishing as high as fourth during the FINA Diving World Series. Last summer he captured the gold medal at the AT&T National Diving Championships and placed sixth at the FINA World Championships. While McCrory has consistently been one of the nation's top platform divers throughout his career, he says he has benefitted from teaming with Boudia.
"One of his best skills is his showmanship," McCrory says of Boudia. "He's really good at competing and you can see his confidence when he's on the platform. So I think that's something that I've gotten better at since I'm around him more and seeing the value to it. Also, diving with him and competing against him at the same time just makes both of us better divers. Neither of us wants to miss when we're diving with each other."
No matter what happens come June - or August, if everything goes to plan - McCrory says he will enjoy and appreciate the entire experience. Like Johnston, he too has dreamed about competing in the Olympics since childhood and hopes he has a chance to represent Duke as an Olympian.
"I'm glad that I can also be representing Duke on all these trips," he says. "We're changing the program and making history. It's exciting."
While Johnston and McCrory ultimately want to make it to London and perform well enough to medal, the two Blue Devils also hope they will have the opportunity to represent both Duke and the United States on the world's largest stage.
"When Kelci and I were doing our practice meet, the swimmers started chanting 'U-S-A', and it just gives me chills," Johnston said. "It's an incredible feeling putting on your red, white and blue, and I think it will be even more special at the Olympics when there are all these different types of athletes around. It's really a humbling experience to be out there representing your country and know that all the people back home are supporting you."