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Apr 24
Johnny stood in the dark alone.  High above everything he would now leave behind, he took that last step — the one that would define him forever and reshape in an instant who he would then become ...

Johnny was a diver.  His father had first thrown him into the pool when he was three years old. A loud clap and enormous splash announced his second baptism.  Instantaneously, in the dark wet silence, he sank beneath all that he had previously known, and in the strange umbilical fear that now surrounded him ¬— he knew that this was for him.

Throughout his childhood, Johnny then spent much of his life ‘at the pool.’  First, at the public swim club at the corner of his street in the summers, and then later at the downtown ‘Y.’ Johnny competed on all the youth league teams as both a swimmer and a diver from ages 5-12.  

It was being a diver though that would shape Johnny’s future. When he finally got to middle-school, he was old enough to try out for the school team and made the team on his first try as a diver. From that time on, everything in Johnny’s life revolved around his time at the pool.  He was always the one to try everything ‘first’, no matter how difficult, and the team always looked to him to come through in the end when the score was close. To do that, Johnny not only needed to dive well, but he needed to pick dives that came with a high degree of difficulty.

He was proficient at all three diving events, the one-meter and three-meter springboards, and then his favorite, the ten-meter- high platform. On the high platform, Johnny was more than just proficient. It was when he was towering high above the water, with his fans watching from below, that he truly excelled.  

His specialty dive, and the one that won most competitions, was an inward two and a half from the ten-meter platform in pike position. Pike position, popularly called jack knife, was when your upper body was bent straight-forward and almost touching your legs.  This dive was the clincher that won consistently, often scoring high enough to allow his team to win too.  It was his favorite dive, and also the one that almost ended his life one fated afternoon almost a year before.

    His life Had Almost Ended Thirty Feet Above The Water

That afternoon, and from the back of the platform, Johnny set in motion a routine that he had done thousands of times before. He walked to the platform’s edge, turned around, and set himself with only his toes and the ***** of his feet on the concrete surface. He then bent his knees and threw both of his arms upward trying to launch himself toward the lights in the ceiling high above the pool.  This time though, something was different.

                 And Something Was Terribly Wrong

Johnny’s right foot slipped as he jumped causing his body to become unbalanced.  The strength and propulsion he needed from that leg was now gone, and he should have aborted the dive and just fell to the water below.  He didn’t. Driven by habit, instinct, and force of will, Johnny continued to try and complete the dive. He rotated forward in spite of his flawed take off while hoping he had enough height to be able to clear the platform on the way down.

                                     He Didn’t!

Johnny doesn’t know what happened next. All two hundred and fifty spectators below were awestruck and deadly silent as they sat and watched his failed takeoff from the platform so high above them.  Johnny woke up four days later in Memorial Hospital with his head totally wrapped in gauze and both legs braced in traction from the bottom of his hospital bed. As he stared hard at the ceiling above, he struggled to remember what had happened. He also had no clear idea as to who he was. This blank spot in his memory would continue to dominate his thoughts and bother him even more as the days rolled on.

Johnny had hit the platform hard, first with the back of his head rendering him instantaneously unconscious and then with the small of his back as he rotated forward and slammed into the front of the platform’s edge. This caused him to momentarily hang there, thirty feet above the pool, before rolling off the front of the platform and falling straight down into the thirty-foot deep water below.  His seemingly lifeless body appeared to bounce off the surface before it continued to slowly sink toward the light at the very bottom of the pool.

Luckily, Johnny’s coach and his brother Tom were lightning quick in their reactions, getting to him before he was able to submerge more than five or six feet.  The concussion from the dive, and medically induced coma to reduce the swelling, kept Johnny unconscious for four days.  When he finally did wake up, all he knew was that his head hurt. It hurt with a pain he had never felt before, and the room that he now found himself in looked very strange.

His nurse told him that hitting his head and losing consciousness may have contributed to saving his life. His relaxed body, when hitting the platform and then the water, was much less prone to injury in this state than if tense and contracted.

For six months Johnny stared up at that same ceiling. The memory of what had happened, or specifically lack of memory, haunted his waking and sleeping hours.  No matter what the hospital staff or his family did to try and distract him, he couldn’t help thinking about that dive.

            He Couldn’t Visualize It, But It Was Always There

Over and over, he tried to relive it in his memory, or what little memory he had left. The doctors told him that memory loss was normal with these types of injuries, and he would probably recall what had happened as time went on. His only previous injury had occurred when he scraped his elbow on the front of the one-meter springboard, reaching back while performing a half-gainer in layout position.  He asked his coach why, why had this happened after all the times before?  Did I not do everything the way I had been coached, and the way I was taught, he asked?

His coach said “Yes, you did, but accidents can and do happen, especially on the high platform, and even more so when your back is to the pool and your dive is executed so close to the concrete surface.” Johnny thought about the coach’s choice of the word execute, and how close he had really come.

                       So Close To It All Being Over

After six months in the hospital Johnny was finally sent home. He left on a ‘walker,’ but the doctors assured him that after three more months, the most he would need to get around with would be a cane.  Johnny had other plans.  He would have a two-week rest while he acclimated himself to being home, and then his outpatient therapy would begin. Johnny’s biggest struggle would not be his still ailing body but the lack of any clear memory. It continued to weigh heavier inside of him than any real memory could.

Johnny’s parents had a gala celebration waiting at their house when the ambulance arrived home.  All of Johnny’s family and friends were there, but the one he was most anxious to see was his dog Revo. He had been separated from him for over six months, and the memory of Revo was one of the few things that Johnny could recall.  Revo was a Portuguese Water Dog and got his name from shortening the word revolution. Revolutions were what Johnny was always working on as his dives got progressively more and more difficult. His coach was always including more revolutions to his dives as his talent and proficiency developed.  Revo seemed to know by instinct Johnny’s state of mind and would not leave his side for the next three months.

Johnny looked up on the family room wall and stared at all the medals, trophies, and ribbons that filled the space over the fireplace from end to end.  He didn’t remember winning any of them, although he knew that he did.  How can you know something with conviction and still not remember doing it he wondered?

He thought most about the one medal that was not up on that wall. Missing, was the one from that meet six months ago, the one that almost took his life and the one that would continue to haunt him until he could stop asking himself, why! On that fateful day, in spite of his failed dive, the team had still accumulated enough points to win.

Five days before the end of the third month that Johnny was home, he was again walking on his own.  It had been almost nine months since his accident, and he could once again leave the house and resume an almost normal life.  Except to him, normal had always meant a life centered around diving and his time suspended high above the water.

Johnny walked and he walked, until he could walk as far as the township pool —the one he knew he had been in many times before, and the one that looked back at him now from across the street and seemed to smile.  Was it a smile he saw or laughter that he thought he heard?  He wasn’t sure, but he was sure he didn’t like it, any of it, and somehow, he had to make it stop. Very isolated flashes had started to return to his memory about his last dive, but every time he focused on them, just as quickly as they came, they were then gone.

Part of Johnny’s ongoing (post hospital) therapy involved the pool.  He first started swimming by trying to complete one lap and then increased his distance by one lap a day.  After a month of swimming Johnny thought he was back to normal.  He did everything a normal kid did at the pool, with one exception…

Over a month had passed at the pool and there was still one thing Johnny had not looked at or faced up to. He had still not looked up at the thirty-foot high platform that extended out and over the far (and deep) end of the pool.  He would avert his eyes as he walked by it and always breath out of the side of his mouth that faced away from the platform as he swam his laps.

               There Was One Thing He Still Could Not Do

It was Johnny’s senior year in high school, and his mother and brother had been bringing work home since he had gotten out of the hospital so he wouldn’t fall too far behind.  One day before Johnny went back to school, his brother Tom had brought his lessons home as usual. It wasn’t the amount of work in the stack of books his brother carried that got Johnny’s attention, but the brochure stuck between two of the lesson plans that stopped him cold.

The brochure announced that in two more months that same swim meet would be happening again. It was actually on the same date as last year’s meet, and his name had inadvertently been added to the list of contestants. All that was needed now was his signed confirmation. This was Johnny’s senior year and his last year eligible to compete for the city medal, the one most coveted by all high school boys before they moved on to college or adult competition.

For the longest time, Johnny stared at the brochure until it seemed to burn right into his hands.  He knew in his heart that until he got past this, nothing else in his life would matter. He walked to where Revo was sitting patiently and looked deeply into his best friend’s eyes. He then sat holding him for what seemed like an eternity before he got up and walked back into the kitchen. Johnny then picked up the phone and called his old coach.

Coach Brackett said, “I think it’s too early, but I’ll let you know when you’re ready. I’ve been watching you swim, and no-one ever expected you to come back this soon.”  Johnny said: “This is my last chance, Coach.  In September, I’m off to college. I don’t want what happened last year to follow me there or to have the failure of that day be the last thing that anyone remembers who watched me dive. Mostly though, I have to complete that dive for me.”

                  He Had To Do That Dive For Himself

Johnny’s memory had also started to come back, but his recollection of that dive, and last year’s meet, were still fuzzy inside his head. “It’s your choice alone Johnny, Coach Brackett said, because at eighteen I can’t stop you. But what did your parents say when you discussed it with them?”  “I’ve told no-one else but you coach, and I’d like to keep it that way for now please.”

After hanging up the phone, Johnny walked deliberately to the mailbox.  His future and redemption were now enclosed within the envelope in his hand. His memory might still be spotty, but the determination inside his heart was never more resolute. He wondered why he felt so strongly about doing something that he still had no clear memory of …

Johnny’s strength and body weight were now almost back to where they were before the accident. He was able to sit upright in a chair for long periods, and it was decided that the time had come for him to return to school. His time at the pool swimming laps had worked wonders, and everyone was glad to see him back. They encouraged Johnny with his rehab as he left for the pool each day, but no one expected him to ever compete again.

If the faded memory of that day almost a year ago had plagued Johnny’s psyche, the anticipation of doing it again was now ten times stronger than before the accident. He would go to sleep at night praying for his amnesia to remain and keep the memory of that afternoon at bay for at least two more months.  As the meet got closer and closer, word started to leak out.  Well-intentioned family and friends started calling Johnny’s folks, concerned about his safety and welfare.

The tension at home became almost as bad as the trauma of what had previously happened.  There seemed to be no place for Johnny to escape, least of all inside his own mind.  He started spending more and more time alone. Through all of this, he remained respectful but refused over and over again to back off and withdraw when his parents asked.

Johnny thought about the one-meter, the three-meter, and then it would happen again.  He could see himself walking to the platform ladder, right before his mind would go blank.  Would he slip again on something that for years he had always stepped through, or would he climb the long ladder to the top and only have to turn around, and in his fear and humiliation, climb back down? He thought he knew the answer, but just thinking it was not enough. He had to make at least one more dive.

Johnny’s coach told him that he could do any dive he liked as long as it was facing forward off the platform.  That way he would be almost assured that if it wasn’t a high scoring dive at least it would provide a safe pathway to the water. The coach knew what Johnny might be thinking, and he wanted to take the pressure off by making his only choices perfectly clear.

Johnny listened.  He liked Coach Brackett very much and didn’t want to disappoint him, but he knew a forward entry dive just wouldn’t cut it.  That’s not the way you enter the water from an inward two and a half.  That dive had been his signature dive, and only by making it his dive again would he achieve the peace he so desperately needed. It would then release the freedom inside of him, liberating him from always looking back, and allow him to finally move on.  

He practiced the dive over and over in his mind until he thought his head would explode.  Every time his memory would go blank just as he jumped up and back, after pushing off from the platform, and always before starting his rotation forward. He couldn’t actually practice the dive because someone was always watching. Many nights he thought about sneaking into the pool and getting it all over with but never did.  He wanted this dive to be in front of the same people who were there to watch a year ago. What seemed only twelve months ago to them felt like a lifetime to him now.  He continued to visualize both the dive and the future it foretold.

He wondered to himself; why is the thing that used to seem the easiest now the hardest? He wondered until he could wonder no more.  No answers would come, and the hardest part was still out in front of him.  Would he be able to climb those rungs to an uncertain future— one that called out his name with a snicker in its voice?  He knew the answer was in only one place and in only one performance.  He knew things now that he never wanted to know again. He trained incessantly on the two springboards for the next seven weeks while doing only front entry dives from the ten-meter height.

The day of the meet came, and his parents were livid. Both had been hoping and believing all along that he would finally step down and their wishes would be obeyed.  With a kiss to his mother and a look in his father’s direction, who was now looking away and would not say either goodbye or good luck — Johnny walked out the door.

All was quiet as Johnny entered the pool through the southside door.  His coach was at the judge’s table, and all looked normal.  Johnny changed quickly in the locker room and started his warmup.  He had a series of three dives he would perform today, but he would only practice the first two.

After the one and two-meter springboard competitions, Johnny was tied for first place.  There would be a twenty-minute intermission before the high platform competition would begin, and Johnny used this time to sit in the locker room’s whirlpool and gather his thoughts.  It seemed like a really fast twenty minutes when he heard his name come over the pool’s public address system to report immediately outside.

When he got there, he saw a great commotion and at least fifteen people standing around the judge’s table.  He saw his coach in the middle arguing vehemently with the head judge.  When Johnny approached the table, his coach told him: “They’re not going to let you dive from the high platform. They said it has something to do with insurance and your being hurt just a year ago. In their minds, the springboards were one thing, but the high platform is something entirely different.”

“More arguing won’t do any good” the coach said, “I’ve tried every tactic I know.  You’ve had a good meet Johnny, and everyone knows you tried.” With that, Johnny went back to the locker room. He felt like his entire life had been pulled out from under him. He went into one of the stalls and closed the door behind him, sat down with his arms folded over his head, and cried.

All time seemed to drift away until Johnny heard a door slam and a loud bang as if all the lights had just been turned off. He didn’t know how long he had been in there, but when he opened the door all he heard was the quiet.  When he walked through the door to the pool it was almost totally dark, and everyone was gone.  The only lights in the building were the one’s shining from the very bottom of the pool and the single light attached to the platform railing at the top of the ladder. Johnny looked up at the platform which was shrouded in almost complete darkness.  He now knew, unlike ever before, just exactly what it was that he had to do — and he had to do it now!

                              It Was His Moment!

His entire life flashed in front of him in that instant. All that had ever mattered to him surfaced within him now.  As he climbed the ladder and finally arrived at the top of the platform, he looked down at the small pile of clothes that he had left on the floor.  As he walked slowly toward the dark edge, he thought about them and smiled.

For the first time he realized that it was much more than just his clothes that he had left down there behind him. He had stripped off something that for almost a year had dominated his waking and sleeping thoughts, something that had held back everything in his life up until today, and something that was almost gone …    

As he stepped forward, his future was released from his past. No fear had made it to the first rung of the ladder and what would happen in a few more seconds only he would ever need to know.

In the darkness, only wet footprints led to the southside door. All fear had dissolved powerless in the cold dark water behind … and there it was to forever remain!
Kurt Philip Behm
Written by
Kurt Philip Behm
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