Day 1- Opening Ceremony
Alex woke with a start as the bus he was riding hit a bump in the road. He had a crick in his neck from leaning against the window for so long. Through the glass he could still see the English countryside rolling past in the distance, as it had been for hours. But, now, he could see more roads branching off from the highway and the faint outline of a city in the distance. It still amazed him that he was on his way to London. He had never been outside the country before this, so to be headed to one of the greatest cities in the world to meet people from hundreds of countries— it was incredible.
After 15 minutes or so, the bus passed into London. All of a sudden there were buildings and people everywhere. He pressed up close to the glass, just trying to take everything in. Monuments blurred in front of his eyes. Everywhere he looked he saw flags— tourists trying to represent their nations' athletes. Eventually, the bus pulled to a stop in front of a large grassy field dotted with tables. He'd been silent on the way there out of nerves, but as the engine shut down he turned to the girl sitting next to him and asked: "Where are we?"
She was petite with curly blonde hair and bright blue eyes. "It must be Olympic Village."
The doors to the bus slid open and a middle aged woman with a neat bob stepped on board.
"Welcome to Olympic Village," said the woman. The girl next to him nodded in affirmation. You will all proceed to the U.S. table and there you will receive a key to your room and a copy of your itinerary for the next two weeks." She gestured to a table towards the end of the quad on the right side of the bus labeled THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. "Enjoy your stay!"
Alex was towards the end of the bus so he was able to watch the other athletes filing off. Since it was just a shuttle from the airport, there was a wide diversity of sports represented on board. He could see large guys who were probably weightlifters, a few tiny gymnasts with bows in their hair, and some broad shouldered swimmers that he recognized from meets. Gradually, they all shuffled down the aisle and out into the bright sunlight.
Alex picked up his welcome packet and consulted a map to find the way to his dorm. His room was on the 4th floor, #409. Once he found it, he fumbled for the key they had given him. It was taped inside a small envelope with his name written neatly on the outside. The tape wouldn't tear, and he stared down at it in bewilderment, trying to figure out what to do. He had the packet between his teeth, ready to rip it, when he heard footsteps coming down the hall. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed two guys walking in his direction. He looked up, ready to introduce himself.
Instead, he nearly dropped his key.
"S-shane," he stammered. "Hey."
He had known Shane was competing, because it was impossible not to know who every member of the US Swimming and Diving Team was. And he had suspected that his teammates would've been placed in the same apartments as him. But he was still utterly unprepared for the actual sight of Shane in person.
Shane, however, looked un-rattled. He didn't say hello. Instead, as he approached the room next to Alex's he said coldly: "I heard you made the team and I couldn't believe it. You should've stayed retired."
Alex's jaw dropped. That was all Shane had to say to him after 3 years?
"I earned my way onto the squad!" he protested.
Shane looked even more displeased. "We'll see."
Before Alex even got the key to turn in the lock, Shane and Jayme had unlocked their door and stepped inside. They were staying right next to him. Well, that was just his luck.
Jayme hadn't spoken during the exchange. In fact, Shane and Jayme never seemed to speak much to each other outside of diving, from what Alex had heard. They matched each other well in the air, but other than diving they had little in common. Jayme was hotheaded, prone to temperamental outbursts when he didn't like the judging or made a mistake. He liked to celebrate wins by partying excessively. Several girls on the US Olympic team had been associated with him before. By contrast, Shane was quiet and reserved. He was a stickler for perfection.
Even knowing that their partnership didn't go particularly deep, though, it still made Alex feel like he had been punched in the stomach to see Shane in person with another partner for the first time.
In 2009 the US Olympic Committee was looking to strengthen the national diving program in the build up to the London Olympics so that China wouldn't sweep all of the diving medals the way they had in 2008. Alex and Shane had been diving together for two years by then, and they were working their way up the rankings. They had been introduced by their individual coaches, who had worked together previously, and they were just starting to hit their stride. Alex and Shane were under consideration for the 2012 US team, but they were told that they needed to up the difficulty of their dives in order to be competitive. Alex was only 15 at the time, already pushing himself too hard, and he struggled with one of the dives in particular—a back 31/2 with blind entry.
They were at a major national meet, fighting to get noticed so that they could get proper funding and training at an official US practice facility. The dive came fourth in their line-up of six. They had absolutely killed their first three. Shane was uncharacteristically excited, knowing that scouts were watching. Alex felt sick to his stomach waiting to step up the ladder.
Shane seemed to sense it and patted him on the shoulder, saying, "Keep it up."
That was as good of a compliment as Shane ever gave, and the words made him smile, loosening some of his nerves. Despite that, the churning feeling wouldn't leave his stomach.
They climbed the rings slowly and Shane quietly asked "ready?" It was a standard part of their routine.
"Yes," Alex confirmed.
"Okay," Shane said. "In three, two, one, go."
They ran three steps to the end of the board and jumped high into the air. The goal was to build enough height on the first jump to get three and a half flips off the bounce. Shane landed perfectly off his jump, springing into the move. Alex over jumped, and instead of landing square on the board, his heels caught the end, and he fell backwards. He heard, rather than felt, the sickening crack of his head hitting the diving board before everything went black. He still remembered flashes of people standing over him, his back on the cold tiles, but everything else until he woke up in the hospital days later was a blur.
One night, months later, he was overcome by curiosity and found the video online. It was strange watching it- he felt disembodied; removed from the situation. The fall was faster on tape than he remembered it being. As he watched himself starting to fall, someone next to the camera gasped loudly. Seconds later the noise of the crowd swelled in alarm. Shane completed the move, oblivious to what had happened. He had always been great at tuning out the outside world during their meets, Alex thought.
Once Shane surfaced, he looked to his right, where Alex should have been, and it was clear as he started to panic. Shane whirled around, looking all around him, splashing the water. People were starting to run from the bleachers to the pool, calling for help, but Shane finally spotted Alex floating under the diving boards. He cut quick strokes across the pool and was able to pull Alex's limp body out of the water.
Alex still had nightmares sometimes, but when he thought of that image—Shane saving him—he always felt better.
As grateful as he was though, he had never gotten to thank Shane. That moment by the diving board was the last time they had spoken before today. Alex spent five days waiting for Shane to visit him in the hospital, but Shane never came. Complete strangers sent him cards wishing him well, but Shane just vanished. Alex even tried calling him a few times to see how he was doing, but Shane didn't answer.
After his accident Alex took a year off. The first three months he was in and out of PT, constantly on pain medicine. When he started to recover he returned to classes, took up tennis, and tried to forget about diving. Then, in late 2010, Jayme and Shane burst onto the scene, winning Worlds with a dynamic routine. Alex sat at home, his stomach burning with jealousy. That was supposed to be him up there. He had always thought he and Shane would be on the podium one day.
He decided then and there that he wasn't done diving. When he told his parents, his mom cried and his dad yelled at him for being an idiot. Hours later, when he was almost hoarse from pleading with them, his mom finally acquiesced and told him in resignation: "Fine, I'll start calling around to find you a partner."
"I don't want a partner," he said firmly. "I'm going to compete as an individual." He never wanted to give someone the chance to desert him again.
Day 2- Training
The next morning there was a mandatory meeting for all members of the US Swimming and Diving Team. Alex arrived early and sat near the back, yawning. The Opening Ceremony had been overwhelming—he couldn't imagine a more rewarding experience than walking around the track in his country's uniform. There had been hours of standing and waiting though, both before and after, and he hadn't gone to bed until almost 3am. He was falling asleep in his chair.
His other teammates filed in slowly. Most of them were familiar to him from other competitions, but there were a few new faces as well. He wasn't the only one who had been a surprise in qualifications.
Bryce Lawson, the diver who had qualified ahead of him for the 10M platform gave a wave to acknowledge him as he sat across the room. Shane and Jayme walked in together 5 minutes before the meeting was set to start. As they passed his row, Shane cocked his head to the side and met Alex's eyes. They stared at each other for a long moment.
"Are these seats taken?" someone asked next to him.
Alex started, breaking the gaze. He looked up and saw his seat partner from the bus. Another girl, who looked remarkably similar in height and build, stood behind her. They had to be synchro partners, he thought.
He smiled. "Nope, go ahead."
They filed in past him and took the seats right next to him. The girl from the bus leaned over. "I never got the chance to introduce myself yesterday. My name is Chelsea."
He shook her hand. "Alex."
Her friend shook his hand as well. "I'm Chelsea's 3 meter partner, Rose."
"Nice to meet you," Alex said.
The three of them talked until Mr. Campbell, the head of the program, entered the room wearing a crisp suit. Like most of their teammates, they didn't fall silent until Mr. Campbell reached the front of the room and loudly cleared his throat.
"Attention everyone," he announced. "I'm going to keep this short so that you can all get back to training, but I need your full attention in the interim. First of all, you all need to realize that you are here representing your country. Please conduct yourself in a manner that reflects well upon you and the U.S. You will be on camera at all times while competing, so no swearing or other unsportsmanlike behavior.
"You should all have received a schedule in your welcome packets. Let me know immediately if you did not. That itinerary will be your life for the next two weeks. Show up 30 minutes early for everything. You don't want to miss any important information in a debrief, or show up late to an event.
"And finally, the IOC had asked me to remind you all to be safe. Don't leave Olympic Village with strangers and always tell a buddy where you are. I know that all of you will fool around with each other, but use protection."
All the athletes groaned.
"I know, I know," Mr. Campbell said, holding up a hand to silence them. "But I had to say it. Now go out and make your country proud!"
Cheers arose around the room.
Once Mr. Campbell had finished making a few other logistical points, they walked over to the dining hall together to get breakfast.
"Look at us," Chelsea said teasingly to Rose as they entered the room. "One day in and we're already hanging out with the cutest guy here."
"What?" Alex asked, his mind inexplicably going to Shane. "Are you talking about me? There's no way."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah," Rose said. "Deny it all you want, but it's true."
"Well I'm glad to hang out with you guys as well," he told her. "I didn't know very many people before I came."
He was just happy to be spending time with people his own age, for what felt like the first time in years. Although he would have to spend most of his time here getting ready for his event, it would be nice to make some new friends in his breaks from practice.
Day 3- 10 Meter Platform Preliminaries
Alex woke up at 6am and headed over to the water cube to get some dives in before his preliminaries that afternoon. He quickly stripped out of his sweats and took a jump into the pool to acclimate to the water. His first time on the platform every day was always the hardest. As he stood on the edge, looking down, he took a deep breath, bracing himself against a wave of nausea. He closed his eyes and visualized himself completing a perfect dive, sliding cleanly into the water.
The second half of the year after his accident, once he had decided to return to diving, was rough. He would take two steps onto the board before he had to sit, quaking with fear, just staring at the water. The first time he got his swimsuit wet, he didn't even dive—he just scooted to the end of the board and lowered himself into the water.
As it turned out, he was never able to go off the springboard. In a final act of desperation after a month of no progress, his coach convinced him to try the 10 meter platform. It was so much higher, but it was stable, and he felt in control again. Over time, his confidence was restored. He started competing in high school meets, and found himself blowing his peers out of the water, pushing his team to state and then the National Competition.
When he decided to compete in the US Championships, he was disappointed to realize that he was in a younger age group than everyone he had competed against with Shane. Everyone he knew was placed in the 18 and older bracket, which met a week later in St. Louis. He felt a world away, still so far behind where he had been before he got hurt.
Even though he had only placed fourth, he made up his mind to try for Olympic qualification, to show everyone once and for all that he was back. He dropped out of high school the next week. His mom started home schooling him. He gave up his whole life—TV shows, friends, junk food, everything—to train. All he did was dive and study. When he placed second by 1/100th of a point, just barely scraping his way onto the US team, it took the diving world by storm.
His practice session only lasted an hour and then he went to get breakfast and relax for a few hours before his first round of competition started. He was scheduled to dive at 2:00 pm in the prelims. Then, he and 7 other divers would alternate dives for 6 rounds. There were 108 divers in total in the preliminaries. The 32 divers with the best scores for the day as a whole would advance to the semifinals in two days. The odds weren't in his favor.
All he wanted to do was put on a good show. If he could manage not to make any mistakes on primetime television, he would feel pretty good about his international debut.
As he waited in the queue of divers, just before 2:00, he stared out at the audience. His coach was sitting in the front row and would be waiting to consult with him after every dive. Most of the swimmers and any of the synchro divers who weren't diving individually were seated another 20 rows back. Chelsea was sitting next to Jayme, laughing at something he was saying. Alex frowned at them. Hadn't she heard about all of Jayme's conquests? He would have to warn her off.
And where was Shane, Alex wondered? Shane wasn't seated anywhere among the swimmers and divers and Alex couldn't imagine where else he would have sat. Had he not come to watch?
Snapping back to attention in the prelims, he realized that the diver in front of him had moved ahead in line. Alex exhaled and started stretching his arms to try to relax. As the next diver started climbing the ladder, Alex stepped up to take the rungs. His view was obscured so he couldn't see the pool in front of him or the dives taking place, but he found that made him less anxious.
Once Alex heard a splash, he was free to start climbing up himself. Judging by the reaction of the crowd, the dive had been fine but not spectacular. At the top, he took five strides to the end of the platform.
"Diver Number 5, Alex Isner," blared the loudspeaker.
The yells of the crowd faded to a dull murmur as he counted to himself, "Three, two, one."
He jumped up, already twisting in air. He knew he had nailed it before he even hit the water.
That night, he walked over to the practice arena to try to relax in the hot tub. It wasn't very crowded so late in the day; only 10-15 swimmers remained. He leaned back in the water, closing his eyes and enjoying the feel of the jets on his tired legs.
A cool down shower came to life near him.
"So you made it through day one," Shane drawled. "Look at you."
Alex's eyes flew open. Shane was leaning against the wall only a few feet away from him. He had pulled off his cap and tilted his head back so that water spilled down his neck and ran along his sleek stomach. Alex swallowed and looked away.
"I did!" he said, unable to hide his excitement. "Survived the first big test."
The day had gone so much better than he had expected. He had placed 28th out of the 32 divers. In two days he would get to dive again in the semifinals.
"Barely," Shane pointed out, then peeled himself off the wall to continue diving.
Alex sighed as he watched Shane walk back to the spring boards. He was surprised Shane had spoken to him at all, but felt disappointed in the abrupt dismissal.
He had just melted back into the hot tub when someone else slid in with him.
"Nice diving today," said a guy with a thick British accent.
Alex turned to him. "Oh, thank you. Were you diving today, or just watching?"
The guy looked vaguely familiar to him, but Alex had seen so many people in the past couple days that it was impossible to place him. He was stunningly attractive though—all tan skin and muscle.
"I dove in the group before you and stayed to watch yours. My name is Ryan Sutter."
"Pleased to meet you. I'm Alex."
"I know," Ryan told him. "Everyone has heard your story. You're an inspiration."
Alex could feel his face growing hot.
"No," he protested. "I just really didn't want to quit diving. It's probably stupid of me."
He remembered Shane saying you shouldn't be hereso dismissively on his arrival day.
"You're incredible," Ryan insisted. "I can't believe how much you've improved since then. Those years have been good to you."
Alex almost laughed out loud at that. The past few years had been miserable.
"So you're a British diver?" he asked, trying to take the focus off him. "That must be awesome, to be with the home crowd."
"It's a lot of pressure," Ryan admitted. "But it's pretty great having so many people there cheering for me. I think you're going to be the home favorite though. You have that killer combination of youthful good looks and a tragic back story."
Alex paused, weighing his words. He had the inexplicable feeling that Ryan was hitting on him, but he tried to shake it off. Ryan was probably just being nice.
"Uh-h," he stammered, trying to think of something to say.
"So what are you doing later?" Ryan asked. "Maybe I'll see you out at bars to celebrate us both advancing?"
Alex openly gaped at him now. Okay, so maybe he wasn't wrong. Guys like Ryan were far too hot to be making moves on Alex.
"I'm not old enough to drink," he confessed.
Ryan chuckled. "You're 18 aren't you? The laws are different here"
"Oh, yeah," Alex said. "I totally forgot about that. I am, but I'm going to bed early tonight, I need to rest up to get ready for the semis."
He felt like kicking himself, he sounded so lame.
"Well, we can have a drink to celebrate another time then," Ryan offered.
Alex felt so confused. He had no idea how he was supposed to react to this attention. No one ever flirted with him.
"Yo," Shane said, suddenly appearing by the hot tub. "I'm walking back to Olympic Village. Are you coming?"
For the second time that night, Alex was struck silent.
"Yes," he exclaimed a moment too late, splashing water as he stood up quickly. "I just need to grab my bag."
He was already two steps out of the pool before he caught himself and looked back to add: "It was nice talking to you, Ryan."
Ryan gave him a long, slow smile. "See you around."
Alex and Shane stepped out of the cube into a clear, slightly cool London night. Shane took long strides as he walked and Alex had to hurry to keep up with him.
"Are you nervous about tomorrow?" he asked, knowing that Shane would think it was an inane question.
"No," Shane sneered. "32 teams advance, there's no chance we don't make it."
Alex was thrown by that. He thought of how lucky he had felt to make it through his prelims. It was hard to imagine being that confident.
To change the subject, he asked, "How's Buster?"
Now it was Shane's turn to look surprised. "I can't believe you remember him."
"Well he was such a little puppy," Alex protested, grinning when he pictured the tiny ball of fur that Shane would sometimes bring with him to partner meetings.
Shane chuckled. "He's certainly not a puppy anymore; he's getting fat."
"You probably feed him too much. You always used to slip him food under the table."
"I got a second dog last year," Shane told him. "Another beagle so that Buster would have some company during the day. Her name is Camper."
"That's great!" Alex replied. "Where are they both while you're in London?"
"They're with Charlotte. I'm sure she has way more time to spend with them than I do. I bet they love all the attention."
Alex had met Shane's sister a few times. "How is she doing?"
"She just got engaged, the whole family is really excited."
Their apartment was visible in the distance now. At the brisk pace that Shane walked, it hadn't taken very long at all to return from the cube. Alex had been enjoying the conversation and was disappointed to see it coming to an end so soon.
Shane swiped his card to let them into the building and then they took the elevator up to the fourth floor.
"You need to watch out for guys like Ryan," Shane said, out of no-where, as they came up on Alex's door. "He won't be the last person here to notice you here."
"What?" Alex asked dumbly. "What are you talking about?"
Shane just ignored him and disappeared into his room.
Day 4: 3 Meter Springboard Preliminaries
Shane seemed back to pretending like Alex didn't exist at breakfast the next morning. But then again, it was the day of his own prelims, so he was likely also focused on his day ahead. It was always hard to tell with Shane.
At the table, Shane downed a glass of chocolate milk and scraped clean a bowl of yogurt with granola before heading back for more. When he returned after being gone an unusually long time, he was holding a banana and staring at it like he didn't know what to do with it.
"Did they not have peanut butter?" Alex asked, before he could stop himself.
Shane always had chocolate milk, granola and a banana with peanut butter before meets. It started as a healthy meal his nutritionist recommended, but became ingrained as a part of Shane's pre-competition rituals.
"They ran out," Shane snapped.
He looked anxious. This probably seemed like an unlucky start to his first day of competition.
"I have some back in my room," Alex offered. He had packed it last second; unsure of whether he would be able to find any in London. Shane had actually gotten him hooked on the stuff during some of their early meets, and now he always ate a few spoonfuls after weightlifting. "You have time to swing back with me before you have to check in at the cube, don't you?"
Shane looked down at his watch then back up at Alex.
"Yeah I should be okay if I go back."
Alex took two more bites of eggs before picking up his tray. "Okay, let me put this away and then we can go."
During the walk back, Shane was quiet.
"I thought you weren't nervous?" Alex pushed.
"I'm just trying to focus," Shane responded, sounding on edge.
Alex persisted, "Well, I'm sure you'll do great, I saw you and Jayme at Worlds. You both killed it."
"Can you not talk?" Shane demanded. "I know that's hard for you, but I just want to think about today."
Alex already had his mouth open to respond, but he fell silent for the remainder of the walk, feeling stung. Back in his room, he crossed over to his bed and dug into his gym back to find one of his peanut butter packets.
"Here you go," he told Shane, handing it to him.
Their fingers brushed as Shane reached out to take it from him.
"Thank you," Shane said. "It would have felt weird not to have it."
"I know how that goes," Alex agreed.
As Shane turned to walk out of the room, Alex added: "Good luck, I'll be cheering for you both."