ATHENS, Greece — It was the stuff Olympic nightmares are full of: He was never out of last place; he hit the board on one dive; he scored a zero on another; he finished 291 points behind the leader.

When it was all finally over, when Utahn Justin Wilcock could pull a warm-up shirt over his aching back and leave his train wreck of an Olympics behind, the one thing he was happy about was that he did it.

"I left no unanswered questions," he said. "I'm glad I didn't pull out."

It was the same sentiment his mother, Kathy, had offered a few minutes earlier, sitting in the stands of the Olympic Aquatic Center with her husband, Scott, holding back tears: "At least he's finishing the race."

Olympic history is full of courageous performances in the face of injury. Stories like Shun Fujimoto, the Japanese gymnast who stuck a landing on a broken leg in 1976; or Kerri Strug, the American gymnast who landed a vault on a sprained ankle in 1996; or Greg Lougainis, the greatest diver of all time, who overcame a badly cut head in 1988. Those performances are memorable because a gold medal was on the line.

Wilcock's courage had a different motive: He simply did not want to quit. For 13 years, ever since he was 12 years old and his neighbor in Smithfield, Dwight Einzinger, invited him to try diving on his backyard trampoline — miles from any bodies of water — he'd trained and sacrificed to dive in the Olympics. He put off graduating from college two years ago so he could train full time with noted coach Ken Armstrong in Texas, his eye — both his eyes — fixated on Athens.

Through the U.S. Trials in June, when Wilcock qualified for the Olympics by placing second behind Troy Dumais, it all went like clockwork. But the day after his ticket to Athens was punched, Wilcock hit the weight room, and it was there — miles from any bodies of water — that he hurt his back.

The doctors said he suffered a stress fracture on the fifth lumbar. Bad enough if you're a bookkeeper; disaster if you're a diver. The only thing he could do was not do anything. He missed the national diving championships in July. For a month straight, he stayed away from diving boards altogether.

When he got to Athens almost a month ago with the U.S. diving team and things didn't feel much better, he had three separate epidural injections of cortisone. Feeling marginal improvement, he worked out sparingly but still approached the board as if it were a wasp's nest.

Then came Monday, the long-awaited and long-dreaded start of the men's 3-meter springboard competition. After a few minutes warming up, Wilcock walked up to Armstrong, the U.S. coach as well as his personal coach. "He had tears in his eyes and said, 'I can't do this,' " Armstrong said. "Then, 15 minutes later, he came back and said, 'No, I gotta try.' "

"At first I thought it just hurt too much and I made the decision I wasn't going to dive," Wilcock said. "Then I did a few dives and I thought, 'This has been a dream of mine since I was a kid.' I guess I was off the list a couple of minutes. I had the administrators going crazy."

He was the seventh diver of 32 entered, with the top 18 moving on to the semifinals. According to credentials he's established the past two years since taking temporary leave of his studies at Brigham Young University to work full time at diving, he should have easily been one of them. Wilcock's mom and dad flew in from Utah for The Moment. So did Carrie, his girlfriend from Texas. Even his youth coach at Salt Lake Aquatics Program Diving, Doug Jamison, who has since moved to New York, came to Greece to watch his one-time protege in his shining moment.

"He is an elegant, beautiful diver," Jamison said, sitting high in the spectator section with his wife, Kelli, a former junior teammate of Wilcock's. "He was a pleasure to coach. He always had the drive and the talent; he did everything he was asked. He could make the finals here. But his back's been hurting him, and he needs his back. It's critical to hold his alignment."

On the first round of six dives, Jamison watched as Wilcock turned 2 1/2 somersaults well enough but entered the water crooked.

"He fell over," said Jamison, wincing as if in pain himself. Wilcock's score, 48.60, was lowest of the opening round. But at that, down on the diving platform, Armstrong was encouraged. "It was the best he's moved it since trials," the coach said. "I thought, 'Well, OK, maybe . . .' "

Wilcock, too, had a glimmer of hope. "My best dive since trials," he agreed.

The second dive, a 56.70, was also awful though not disastrous. But when Wilcock barely finished his third dive, scoring 38.70, his distress was painfully obvious. By his fifth dive, calling for 2 1/2 somersaults and two twists, he didn't do all the twists and got a zero. On his final dive, a backward 2 1/2 somersault, he didn't, or couldn't, push off far enough from the board and hit his foot on the way down.

"On that dive all I told him was to have a strong takeoff and be safe," Armstrong said. "That shows how little control he had over his body. The (back) muscles were just not giving him a break."

By that point, the crowd had clued in that the American's problems went beyond normal Olympic jitters. When he climbed out of the pool for the last time, it was to thunderous applause.

"I don't know if what he did was an inspiration to anyone else," Armstrong said. "But it was to me. He sucked it up. He stood up and did what he had to do. A lot of people would have pulled out."

"You dream of going to the Olympics, what you don't dream about is getting a zero and hitting the board," Wilcock said. "It wasn't the best meet of my life, that's for sure, but I have no regrets. It was what I was dealt today. I feel like I did everything I could. I think that's maybe why I have a smile on my face.

"I'm planning on sticking around for four years and being in Beijing," Wilcock, who turned 25 in June, said before grabbing his backpack, hugging his parents and heading with them to the exit.

"This has been a great experience to get ready for that. I'll take this and use it for that much more determination when I get on the board there."

He paused before adding, "No matter how it goes, it can't get any worse."


Lee Benson is in Athens to report on the 2004 Summer Games for Deseret Morning News readers. This is his ninth assignment to cover the Olympics. Please send e-mail to benson@desnews.com.