Drew Johansen’s Olympic dreams were sparked by watching Team USA dominate the 1984 summer games in Los Angeles – particularly in diving, in which Greg Louganis took two gold medals.
So it was especially sweet for the Duke diving coach to help put to rest the country’s recent dearth of diving medals. Johansen, 42, led the 2012 U.S. Olympic diving team, which brought home three medals from the London games – the country’s first diving medals in 12 years.
The tally includes the first U.S. medals in synchronized diving, which went to two Duke divers who have long trained with Johansen, along with their partners.
For Johansen, who returned this past week from a month in London, the games represent a high mark in a decades-long career as a diver and coach.
“It was the most amazing moment in my coaching career, and one of the most special moments in my life,” Johansen said of winning the medals. “To be part of the team that brought success back to the U.S. after all those years is a great honor for me.”
Johansen was a key part of his athletes’ life-changing victories. Duke diver Nick McCrory describe his coach as “very demanding,” and said Johansen’s firm belief in their abilities was crucial to the team’s success.
“He asks a lot based on what he knows each of his athletes is capable of,” said McCrory, who has worked with Johansen for five years and won a bronze medal in the men’s synchronized 10 meter platform with partner David Boudia. “He believes in us, and he pushed us to do all that we are capable of doing.”
Rubbing elbows in London
In addition to McCrory’s bronze, Duke’s Abby Johnston and partner Kelci Bryant took silver in women’s synchronized 3 meter springboard, and Boudia bested McCrory and others to take the gold in men’s individual 10 meter platform.
Johansen hopes this year’s strong showing will signal a turning point for U.S. diving, which reached its peak with Louganis’ success in the 1980s but has faltered since.
“It wasn’t necessarily that they fell behind,” Johansen said of the U.S. diving team. “The rest of the world caught up, and the competition got so much deeper, we struggled to find our way onto the podium for a while.”
In recent years, China has transformed the sport with its overwhelming success. But other countries are starting to catch up.
Johansen competed at the national level, but never in the Olympics. So he and his team were all experiencing the grandeur of the games for the first time.
Johansen said one of the most impressive parts of the games was the Olympic Village, and the sometimes-surreal experience of rubbing elbows with elite athletes.
“It’s like a giant college campus with 10,000 of the world’s greatest athletes living in the dorms,” he said. “You go into a cafeteria and see a 7-foot basketball player and then a 4-foot gymnast, and they’re all the best at what they do in the world. It’s pretty amazing.”
A mother’s influence
Johansen dreamed of making it to the Olympics for years, but his interest in sports hasn’t always focused on diving. In high school, he cycled through football, baseball and other sports in addition to diving.
“Whatever season it was, that was my sport,” he said.
A self-described “army brat,” Johansen followed his father’s army career to Germany, Florida, and other locations, including Fayetteville.
Sports gave him a focus amid the constant moves. In the end, he says, growing up in a variety of settings was good for his career as a coach at the international level – helping him learn to deal with people from a variety of different cultures and with many different personalities.
But it was the influence of his mother, a teacher, that made him decide at the age of 15 that he would someday be a coach.
“The heart of coaching is teaching, and I think that’s what really did it for me,” he said.
He said he chose diving over other sports because he always enjoyed the training aspect – the hard work of preparing your mind and body for competition – and diving required intense training.
“It’s very much like golf, where perfection is something you’re always chasing you will never, ever capture,” he said. “No matter how successful you are, there are always elements you can work on to improve.”
Johansen’s first formal diving training was in college at East Stroudsburg University in Pennsylvania. When program was cut, he went to the University of Arizona.
He left there for Florida Atlantic University, where he took a coaching job and continued to compete.
“In the competitive sense, it’s just the athlete and gravity pretty much,” he said. “But there’s a team aspect to the training, and the coach-diver relationship is really special. It fit me well.”
He soon devoted himself to coaching, leading several collegiate and club teams over the years. In 2007, he left a club team in Columbus, Ohio, to come to Duke.
Helping mold Olympians
Johnston, whom Johansen has coached since she was 12, followed him to North Carolina, where she finished high school online before enrolling at Duke. McCrory, a Chapel Hill native, started training under Johansen when he was a junior in high school.
U.S. Olympic rules assign the coach with the most athletes competing in the most events as the team’s official coach. Johansen earned the spot when Johnston and McCrory qualified in a total of three events. Johansen cited the close bonds among the three as a key element in the team’s success.
“We trained together for so many years, and we were able to all be there together,” he said. “The strength of that team helped them overcome the immense pressure they were under.”
McCrory said one of Johansen’s strengths is his attention to detail. He said his coach watches hours of video to master the subtleties of elements such as a diver’s precise arm position.
“He’s very meticulous about the little details that actually make a big difference in your dive,” McCrory said.
Johansen also coached the USA Diving team at the 2011 World Championships team in Shanghai, China. In the past year, U.S. divers also competed in Dubai, Russia, China and elsewhere. The busy travel schedule helped team members from all over the country bond, Johansen said, and sharpen their skills for the world stage in London.
Both Johnston and McCrory expect to graduate before the next Olympics, to be held in Brazil in 2016. But whether or not the three are still together, they all are hoping to build on their successes.
“You never know what the future holds,” Johansen said. “We are looking forward to Rio.”
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