ATLANTA – For three years, Steele Johnson had David Boudia by his side on the 10-meter platform.
They were models of synchronicity while flipping and twisting above the water. Then they stood shoulder to shoulder last August on the Olympic podium as silver medalists at the Rio 2016 Games.
But Johnson didn’t need a vantage point 33-feet high to see his career down the road – and Boudia’s place in it.
“Even before the Olympics happened, you kind of are looking off to the future, but not dwelling on it,” Johnson said. “I was trying to think, ‘Well, if David does this, where will I go? What will I do?’”
Boudia, who will turn 28 later this month, decided to take at least this year off. He and his wife are expecting a second child and he is working in real estate.
But Johnson didn’t have to look far to find a new partner. He knew Brandon Loschiavo, a diver from California, would be an incoming freshman at Purdue University, where Johnson is a sophomore.
Boilermakers coach Adam Soldati was way ahead of him.
“He said, ‘That’s a no-brainer,’” Johnson said. “So he put us together.”
Good move. In their first competition as a team, Johnson and Loschiavo won the men’s 10-meter platform Thursday at the USA Diving Synchronized National Championships.
They cruised to the title with 821.16 points, beating the runners-up by more than 97 points at the 1996 Olympic pool at Georgia Tech.
Jordan Windle and Ryan Hawkins were second (723.93), followed by Benjamin Bramley/Maxwell Flory (716.28) and Max Showalter/Zach Cooper (700.14) in the four-team final.
The Purdue duo’s best dive was the back 3½ somersault tuck, which scored 84.15 points.
They will represent Team USA at the FINA World Championships in Budapest in July. One synchro team from event qualifies for worlds.
Kassidy Cook, a 2016 Olympian on the 3-meter springboard, went 1-2 in the women’s 3-meter synchro event with two different partners. Paired with 15-year-old Maria Coburn, she won the title by almost 50 points. They scored 573.15 points, with Cook and Allison Gibson placing second with 523.71. Coburn was also doubling up, and she placed third with her other partner, Emma Ivory-Ganja, at 516.99.
USA Diving is displaying a wealth of new talent in Loschiavo, Coburn and Tarrin Gilliland (half of the winning women’s 3-meter synchro team Wednesday), who are all making their first trip to worlds. But Boudia will be missed by Team USA.
“It’s going to be weird at worlds not having David there,” Johnson said. “But at the same time, it’s a new generation.”
Boudia is the most decorated U.S. diver since Greg Louganis in the 1980s. He won a gold medal in 10-meter platform and a bronze in 10-meter synchro at the London 2012 Olympic Games, then added the silver with Johnson and bronze in the individual 10-meter in Rio. He also has a medal from every worlds since 2007, with four silvers and one bronze, including silver in the individual platform event in 2011, 2013 and 2015.
“Dave’s still been around,” Johnson said of Boudia, who lives near the Purdue campus in West Lafayette, Indiana. “He’s been around the pool when Adam was away at some of the women’s meets. He would come and kind of talk with us and mentor us a little bit while we were at the pool working with the assistant coaches.”
Johnson and his fiancée, Hilary Nussbaum, also have lunch with Boudia and his wife, Sonnie Brand. Boudia will be a groomsman in the Johnson/Nussbaum wedding.
“He’s taking time to be a dad and be a husband, which I 100-percent support because I’m getting married in June,” Johnson said. “I’m starting to understand more and more what that life is like.”
But he said he has “no idea” if Boudia will return to the sport as a competitor.
“I can’t speak on his behalf,” he said. “When we’re together we never talk about diving. We’re always talking about our life, things that are important to us. Right now we’re talking about suits and stuff for my wedding and trying to figure that out.”
Johnson and Loschiavo needed only three weeks of full-time training to figure out the mechanics of their new partnership. Although they have an 8-inch height differential – Johnson is 6-2 and Loschiavo is 5-6 – that’s not a problem.
“He flips way faster than me,” Johnson said.
But he said their timing will come as they train more.
“We train in the same pool every single day,” said Johnson, who has a tattoo of the Olympic rings on his left forearm and wears an Olympic team ring. “That’s what David and I did for three years and that’s what Brandon and I are going to be able to do for the next four years. We’re going to always be working on those individual dives and then just making them match up.
“Now we’re going to have a couple of months and hopefully we can go in and compete really well and make a name for ourselves at the world stage.”
Johnson has also been getting reacquainted with 10-meter diving. He took seven months off from the platform to concentrate on springboard, which paid off when he swept the NCAA 1-meter and 3-meter titles last month. In December, he qualified for the world championships in 1-meter, which is not an Olympic event.
“I was like, ‘10-meter’s scary, I don’t want to go back up,’” Johnson said. “I do have more of a springboard body. I don’t have quite the muscle build yet, but I have height, which makes pushing the board a lot easier for me.”
But he always intended to return to the platform, and knew he had a great partner waiting in the wings.
Though Loschiavo is only a year younger than Johnson, the 19-year-old said, “I looked up to him since I was a little kid. He’s an Olympian and I thought, ‘If I can do synchro with him, maybe it would help techniques,’ so I just thought it was a great opportunity.”
He didn’t even mind letting Johnson stay on the right side.
“It is strange seeing Steele doing synchro with another person,” Cook said, “but obviously change is going to have to happen and I think we’ve accepted that. We definitely miss David, but he is having a second daughter, so he has some pretty big things ahead of him.”
Boudia has left the door open to come back, and Johnson will address that if it happens.
“Right now I’m diving with Brandon,” he said, “so Brandon and I are working every day and are going to continue to work every day. If Dave comes back, Dave comes back. But at the moment I’m focused on diving with Brandon for this world championships.”
He’s also focused on his new role with the team.
“I think in some sense I’m a leader to some of the younger kids,” said Johnson. “But I’m still learning from Michael Hixon and Sam Dorman (the 3-meter synchro champions and Olympic silver medalists); I’m learning from David even though he’s doing some real estate stuff now. I’m trying to grab more experiences, more knowledge from these older divers.”
Cook has also found herself as a member of the older guard.
“At the synchro camp, they actually had me talk to the kids, which was different for me,” she said. “Going into the 2012 trials and 2016, I was one of the younger ones. Maria’s only 15 years old and I’m like, ‘Ohmigosh, I’m the old woman now and I’m only 21.’”
Coburn said that diving alongside Cook, who was 13th in the individual event in Rio, “I have to really just bring it, make sure I don’t let her down.”
Team USA did not qualify for the Rio Games in women’s 3-meter synchro.
“I want to get Team USA back on top with synchro,” Coburn said, “and hopefully this is one step closer.”
Cook said that although Boudia was a role model for U.S. divers, she believes she and other veterans can “pick up where he left off.”
“And although we will miss him if he does not come back,” Cook added, “I think we can definitely keep up the positive attitude and hard-working vibes as we are transitioning into this next Olympics.”