In the summer of 2010, Nick McCrory had his first experience holding an Olympic medal. He reached out and grabbed it, clenching his hopes and dreams in his hands.
“That was the first Olympic medal that I’ve ever seen,” McCrory, a Blue Devil diver, said. “Holding it in my hands made this all so real. It really inspired me.”
The significance of this moment, however, did not lie in the medal itself, but in the person who had won it.
That bronze medal belonged to McCrory’s uncle, Gordon Downie, who earned the medal in the 800-meter freestyle relay for Great Britain at the 1976 Games in Montreal. Downie, who has worked as a pulmonary critical care physician since the end of his swimming career, has followed McCrory closely since he began diving at age eight. It did not take long for Downie to realize that McCrory was headed down a similar path toward Olympic glory.
“One of the first international competitions [Nick] had was when Nick was about 12 or 13 in Buffalo, N.Y. My parents lived in Buffalo and went to the competition,” Downie said. “My father, who had followed me and was very involved with my swimming called me afterward and said, ‘Nick is going to be an Olympian.’ We knew there were going to be big things coming.”
Now, McCrory has an opportunity to earn an Olympic medal of his own when he competes in both the individual and synchronized men’s 10-meter platform at the 2012 London Olympics. McCrory’s Duke teammate, Abby Johnston, will also compete in the synchronized women’s 3-meter springboard. The two are the first divers in program history to qualify for the Olympic Games.
Tapping into Downie’s Olympic experience, McCrory relied on his uncle to help make difficult choices regarding his training regiment. Downie was instrumental in McCrory’s decision to take a leave of absence from Duke this past year. The junior did not attend Duke either semester, and instead focused on his diving.
“He encouraged me to do what I thought was going to be best,” McCrory said. “It was a stressful time and it was difficult trying to balance everything that I wanted to do. He told me that if I wanted things to get better I had to take steps to make that happen.”
The decision was one that, McCrory said, was as much academically motivated as it was athletically. He plans to follow in his father, aunt and two of his uncles’ footsteps and become a doctor as well. Johnston was in a similar situation, taking a reduced course load last Fall before missing the entirety of Spring semester.
“I really wanted to give myself the best opportunity to succeed. It was a hard decision. I missed being at school and taking classes with my friends,” McCrory said. “But in the end balancing everything I was doing with my diving with all of the difficult classes was becoming too much.”
Downie did not even entertain the notion of taking a year away from the University of Michigan while he was training for the Olympics, but said that if he were in McCrory’s situation now he might handle things differently.
“At the time, nobody had the expectation that you could be a world-class athlete and get through the rigors of a top-notch academic institution like Duke,” Downie said. “I did not take time off. I think in retrospect if I had taken the year off, I might have been able to win the gold medal. If I was in Nick’s shoes now I would have done the same thing.”
With the Olympics less than a month away, McCrory says his first walk to the edge of the platform could not come any faster, but he will relish the chance for some normalcy while he still can.
“I want to be there already. I want to be in that environment. I want to see everything that goes on in the Olympic village,” McCrory said. “There’s something that can be said about being patient, and I’m eager to get back to regular training for a little while. I know once we get to London everything is going to be super hectic.”
For Downie, the trip to London will serve as a homecoming. He will be able to watch his nephew live out his dream and compete for the United States while reliving his own Olympic experience in the country for which he won his bronze medal. He has already made plans to reunite with many of his Olympic teammates, and said watching the diving together will make for some friendly competition between old friends.
“One of the best platform divers in the world is competing for Great Britain, so my ex-teammates are very proud of him,” Downie said. “My red-white-and-blueness will definitely come out when I’m over there. I won’t have any qualms at all about cheering for Nick when I’m around them.”
Downie said he is confident that McCrory will not be leaving this year’s Olympic Games empty-handed.
“I have no doubt in my mind that Nick is going to be on the podium with [his diving partner] David Boudia getting an Olympic medal,” Downie said.
McCrory said being able to share every step of this experience with his family is what makes it most rewarding.
“They’ve traveled everywhere with me. They’ve been around the world for me to watch me to compete. They rarely miss a meet,” McCrory said. “It’s incredible to have that support [from] them, and being able to look off the platform into the stands—whether I’m in Malaysia or China or London—they’ve always been there.”