Photo: David Boudia and Steele Johnson © 2016 The Associated Press
By Mike Berry
I remember it as if it happened yesterday, even though it was almost a dozen years ago. The year was 2005, and I had just locked my office door and walked out to the lobby of the church where I was serving at the time. There were several people standing in clusters talking and enjoying one another’s company. Suddenly someone bumped me from behind. I turned to see a blond-haired little boy, looking up at me with a fire in his eyes. I smiled and stepped aside to allow him to continue the pursuit of his brother through the church lobby. He grinned at me, told me “Thanks,” and bounded away.
Today the world knows that blond-haired boy—Steele Johnson, U.S. Olympic Silver Medalist in the Men’s 10-Meter Synchronized Diving event in last summer’s Rio games. My heart swelled with pride as I watched him, along with diving partner David Boudia, capture the medal and the hearts of those watching. I smiled as I thought about the little boy with all of that energy all those years ago. Look at where he’s made it today, I thought to myself. That grin and fire in his eyes that I remember can still be seen today in just about every picture of Steele.
Recently I had a chance to talk with Steele about faith, work ethic, favorite moments from the Olympics, and what truly defines his life and career.
Describe your early days as a diver. What led you to get into this sport?
Steele: My early days of diving began at my local neighborhood pool. Instead of swimming with my friends, I would spend my time doing flips off of the diving board. My mom later signed me up for diving lessons so that I would learn to be safe when doing these flips. I was an adrenaline junkie from a young age.
Talk for a moment about the work that’s involved in becoming an Olympic athlete.
Steele: The amount of work needed to become an Olympic athlete is the same as everything else in this world. If you want to be at the highest level, you need to put in a high level of work. Long days training. Long nights recovering. Skill is needed, but without a good work ethic that skill will never reach its full potential.
How much has faith played a part in this journey for you?
Steele: Without my faith, I would not be where I am today. And I mean that in a sense that if I were not trying to live my everyday life loving and looking like Jesus, then I would be working hard to make this whole Olympic journey about myself. When I was young I wanted to be in the spotlight and have everyone look at me like I amounted to something, but since Jesus entered my life I have wanted nothing more than to be someone who lives, loves, and looks like Jesus.
This whole Olympic journey is about God’s goodness, not about my greatness in athletics. An Olympic medal will never hold my identity, but if I didn’t have faith in Jesus, an Olympic medal would control me. There is excitement in an Olympic silver medal, but there is freedom in Jesus.
What have been some of the hardest aspects about being a Christ follower and being on a world stage?
Steele: Being a believer on a world stage brings criticism from groups who oppose the truth that is in the Bible, but when you truly let the Spirit flood your life, this criticism holds no power. Knowing nothing will ever change what Jesus says and has already done for you makes any criticism seem weak. There is power in the Word, and being on the world stage has helped me connect with other believers and build up an incredible community full of accountability. It’s all about Jesus.
What are some of your biggest convictions as a believer, and how have you been able to weave those into your journey as an Olympic athlete?
Steele: I am constantly convicted by my selfishness. Too often I seek ease and what is comfortable. Comfort does not lead to growth. Stepping into the unknown is incredibly difficult for me because of how much I have dealt with fear of man in the past, and too often I miss opportunities to share the gospel with someone who may have needed to hear it. Boldness occurs when I am truly walking in stride with the Spirit.
What were some of your favorite moments before, during, or after the Olympics?
Steele: My favorite moment before the Olympics was the Opening Ceremonies. Walking into a stadium filled with hundreds of thousands of people chanting “USA” was overwhelming. Dreaming about walking into the Olympic Stadium always seemed so far away, but when the moment was there, I didn’t realize just how sweet it would be.
My favorite moment during the Olympics was winning the silver medal. David and I had worked hard for years to get to where we were, and to walk away with a silver medal was more than I could have ever asked for. A medal does not define all our years of hard work, but what it does do is give us a reminder of how there is much more to what we do than just a big piece of metal. My favorite moment after the Olympics was going to the White House and meeting Barack Obama. Meeting the president is not something that everyone gets to do, and it was a cool moment to be able to shake his hand.
What would you tell a young boy or girl who aspires to make it to where you’ve made it today?
Steele: Work hard, do everything with excellence, find new ways to enjoy the sport, and don’t obsess over it. Obsession leads to destruction. While the final result may be sweet, the journey is what really matters. Don’t miss an opportunity to love someone because you were too focused on achieving some goal that holds no weight at the end of the day.
What defines you the most when it comes to your faith and how has your Olympic journey helped with this definition?
Steele: Jesus. Only Jesus can define me. Only Jesus can define any of us. Something I realized throughout this entire Olympic journey was just how loved we all are. I thought I needed to be an Olympian to be loved, but through this exciting time I realized that nothing will ever change the fact that I am already loved. No accolade will ever change this. No job will ever change this. No person will change this. Our identity is set in stone by the Creator of everything. That is the coolest thing. Olympic medal or not, I’m loved. Popular or not, you are loved. No amount of awards, money, or fame will change this, so stop seeking those things and seek God.
As I listened to Steele, I realized that the world may never celebrate this side of his life. They may never shine a spotlight on his faith. But Heaven rejoices in who Steele really is and what he stands for. The world equates accomplishment with how much money you make, the accolades you receive, how many followers you have on social media, what kind of college you go to, or the career you end up in. But Steele understands that true accomplishment is found in something way deeper than anything this world offers. It’s in knowing Jesus and experiencing true freedom in Christ. It’s in finishing the race of a life marked by a Savior who loves us deeply and who never leaves our side.
That’s a victory that far outweighs winning an Olympic medal.
Mike Berry is an author and public speaker. He and his wife, Kristin, cocreated the award-winning blog confessionsofanadoptiveparent.com.