RIO DE JANEIRO – It’s hard to think that a bronze medal could ever feel as good as gold, but Saturday for David Boudia, it just may have.
The reigning Olympic champion in diving’s 10-meter platform event, the 27-year-old from Noblesville, Indiana, became the first American man to medal in it at back-to-back Olympics since Greg Louganis in the 1980s, cementing his place in the sport and awarding him with a sense of accomplishment that was almost good as gold.
“If I didn’t want to win gold, something would be seriously wrong,” Boudia reasoned, “but there has been a lot of pressure for me leading into the Olympic Games. I pushed that all aside. Tonight it panned out my way. The last two Olympics, four events, four medals, that’s pretty successful.”
China’s Chen Aisen won the event going away, hitting six dives for six dives in the final for a monster score of 585.30. Mexico’s German Sanchez was second with a 532.70, while Boudia won bronze with a 525.25, nearly 20 points ahead of fourth place.
“Not many defending Olympic champions even get back on the podium,” said Steve Foley, USA Diving’s high performance director. “What he has done here was pretty special. It’s impressive: He’s a guy that is married with a young daughter and priorities change, but he got here and he put up a heck of a defense.”
Things have changed greatly for Boudia since that breakthrough – and breakout – win in London, having gotten married to Sonnie Brand later that year and then welcoming daughter Dakoda in 2014. It was the sight of them on Saturday after he finished that made him realize how hard it’s all been.
“I’m not extremely emotional, but I looked up to them during my NBC interview and just started bawling,” Boudia said. “I know how much my wife has sacrificed for me … me being gone all the time. She’s encouraged me so much the past four years.”
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It was a surprising men’s diving final even before it began, when 2012 bronze medalist Tom Daley of Great Britain failed to make it out of the semis after placing first in the preliminary round. He finished 18th out of 18 divers earlier on Saturday.
China's Qiu Bo, the diver Boudia leapfrogged in London for gold, was two-time reigning world champion coming into the final here, but botched his second and fifth dives, finishing sixth overall.
Boudia was steady through the first five rounds, his second and fifth dives being his best efforts, in fact, popping a 102.60 on dive number five with a near splash-less back 2½ somersault, 2½ twists that brought roars from the crowd inside Maria Lenk Aquatics Center.
But dive six was the one that has given Boudia trouble throughout his career, a forward 4 ½ somersault dive that he had struggled with in the previous two rounds in Rio, as well. He had moved it to the final position for the final, with hopes that he had built up enough cushion – and confidence – to hit it well enough and land on the podium.
A 68.45, however, his lowest score of the day by 10 points, left him waiting – and worrying.
“To be honest, I thought I was going to be in fourth place,” Boudia said plainly.
Only Chen and Sanchez passed him, however, Boudia adding to his synchronized platform silver from earlier this Olympics, earned alongside training partner Steele Johnson. Boudia embraced coach Adam Soldati as he witnessed his named emblazoned next to “Bronze” on the leaderboard, another medal earned for the now three-time Olympian.
“I think the experience helped me tonight,” Boudia said, adding that he was hoping for the persistent rain that was falling at the start of the final to grow into a downpour. (It did not, instead subsiding midway through the competition.) He believes his experience has conditioned him for far-from-perfect conditions.
“This is a hard, hard sport,” he said. “That’s what we love about it. You’re doing 18 dives off of a three-story building; your body is pretty beat up. I’m glad to be standing here with a bronze medal around my neck. It could have gone differently.”
Whether or not this is a career-capping achievement – Boudia is uncertain of if he’ll return or not – it was a satisfying end to the 2016 Games, which had began for him at an Olympic training camp in July in Atlanta and continued straight on through until Saturday.
It’s medal No. 4 for him in his Olympic career (platform and syncho here, 2012 gold as well as 2012 synchro bronze with Nick McCrory) and No. 3 for the U.S. diving team, with Sam Dorman and Michael Hixon winning silver in the synchro 3-meter springboard.
Boudia had been 10th in the semifinals, where Johnson was 13th, just missing the final. He had made some tactical changes after the semis – including the dive order alteration – and then let himself go. For a reigning Olympic champion, it’s more about allowing the training to take over and the diving do itself.
“He’s at ease with himself,” Foley said. “There was some pressure on David Boudia – he’s the defending Olympic champion. But he just seems to deal with it. No matter what – win, lose or draw – he’s a quietly confident person.”
One that has created a lot of noise in the world of diving, however, and one that again showed on Saturday that he can bring his best to the platform and the pool exactly when he needs to.
“At the beginning of the Olympics, my mind was going every which way, it was like I was a little boy again,” Boudia said of the pressure he faced heading into Rio. “I live off those nerves, though, I want that.”
Saturday he delivered, a bronze as his prize – one that felt awfully a lot like gold.