The platform for the ten-meter dive at the Olympics towers 32 feet and nine inches above the water below. For some dives, athletes begin with their heels hanging over the edge of the platform; for others, they begin in a gravity-defying handstand. But to complete a forward four-and-a-half somersault, divers must take a galloping run before flinging themselves into the air. It’s a difficult dive, but one that’s almost essential to master for competitors looking to medal in Tokyo, and 22-year-old University of Texas senior Jordan Windle nailed his version of it at the U.S. Olympic trials in June.

Throwing oneself off a three-story ledge might sound terrifying, but Windle has been practicing it for more than a decade. Even further back, Windle’s youth taught him something about taking an enormous leap and handling it with grace and agility. Born in Cambodia, Windle was adopted from an orphanage when he was eighteen months old and raised in Florida and North Carolina by his father, Jerry Windle. Jerry, who is gay, remembers reading a newspaper article about adoption in Cambodia and thinking it could be a path to experiencing an aspect of life he’d long dreamed of—fatherhood.

Neither Jerry nor Jordan Windle knew where their life together would lead, but twenty years later, their relationship has become foundational to both father’s and son’s senses of self. “Having his support and love over the years, and all the sacrifices he’s made, is really everything,” Windle says of his dad. And whenever he’s getting ready to take that acrobatic, thirty-foot plunge during competition, it’s the sight of his dad in the stands that gives Windle the belief that he’ll perform his best. Due to COVID-19 restrictions in Tokyo that prevent athletes’ families from attending the Games, Windle won’t be able to rely on that pre-dive moment of connection, but Jerry made sure his son felt his love in an emotional video shared on the Olympics Twitter account. 

Windle can’t talk about his dad without smiling. Admittedly, he smiles a lot. He has the kind of heart-melting smile that makes you want to smile. “As long as I’m having fun and I’m enjoying it, I compete at my best,” he says. “I went into Olympic trials doing that, and going into the Olympics I’m going to do the same thing.” 

https://twitter.com/olympics/status/1418631999363829762

It was Jerry who first signed Windle up for diving camp fifteen years ago. Maybe it was a lucky choice; maybe it was fate. Whatever it was, Jerry had no clue it would lead to his son competing for Olympic gold. Windle was seven that summer, and Jerry hadn’t gotten around to registering his son for any of the sports he wanted to learn. Tennis, soccer, even ping-pong—everything was booked. 

The two were out riding bikes in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where they lived at the time, when they passed the International Swimming Hall of Fame. They decided to check it out and saw that the swim center on site was hosting an “aquatics fun camp.” At the far end of the pool, Windle saw kids jumping off a diving board and knew he had to try it. Jerry signed him up on the spot. Most campers leapt into the pool feet first, but Windle had no fear when it came to plunging in headfirst after just a few jumps. After that first day, he was hooked. With Windle’s ability and enthusiasm, it didn’t take long for coaches to identify his potential. 

Soon, Windle was working out with the local club diving team and receiving instruction from expert coaches. The sport also helped him find community. In grade school, classmates often questioned why he looked different from many of the other students, why his dad wasn’t his biological father, why he didn’t have a mom, and where he was born. At the pool, diving was all that mattered.

When Windle was twelve, USA Diving invited him to train at its world-class facility, near the group’s Indianapolis headquarters. The following year, when he was barely a teenager, Windle competed in the trials for the 2012 London Olympics, though he didn’t qualify. Over time, diving changed from Windle’s passion into his way of life, and he chose to stop attending high school in person and complete his studies online to maximize his practice hours. By the time trials rolled around for the 2016 Rio Games, Windle, then seventeen, was among the best divers in the country, but he wound up barely missing the Team USA roster that summer.

He chose to enroll at UT in 2017 because the Longhorns swimming and diving team gave him the same feeling of acceptance and closeness that he’d found when he first took up the sport. “I wanted a family-based team,” he explains. On Fridays, the UT team hosted “clap meetings,” during which they applauded each athlete for an accomplishment, no matter how minor, from that week’s practices. After that, the entire team would go to dinner at a restaurant chosen by seniors. During competitions, Windle says his teammates applauded every dive, regardless of the scores.

Windle fit right in and had a strong freshman season, setting an NCAA record of 579.60 points in the men’s ten-meter platform at the Big 12 Swimming and Diving Championship. In 2019, as a sophomore, he won the NCAA championship in that same event, which is his strongest. Windle’s career was peaking in the lead-up to the 2020 Tokyo Games, and then the pandemic forced him and so many other Olympic athletes to pause their dreams for one more year. Windle says he coped with the setback by reminding himself that “everyone was put in the same situation,” which allowed him to “come back from the disappointment of not being able to compete.” With laser focus, Windle opened the finals meet at this year’s Olympic trials with a dive that scored a perfect 10 from five of seven judges. After his last dive of the competition, once he was assured of a trip to Tokyo, Windle buried his face in the American flag and wept tears of joy.

After almost ten years and three trips to the trials, Windle was finally an Olympian. Later this week, when he climbs the platform for his first dive in Tokyo, Windle will become the first person of Cambodian descent to compete in diving at the quadrennial event. In practices leading up to the Games, Windle has been able to work alongside Team USA’s other entrant in the men’s ten-meter platform dive, Brandon Loschiavo. “Any athlete that wants to compete at the highest level needs other athletes at the same level or higher than them, because that pushes you to want to reach for them,” Windle says. Windle was also on the pool deck and among the first to hug Hailey Hernandez when she made Team USA’s diving roster in June. The seventeen-year-old surprise qualifier will join Windle at UT in the fall.

Windle counts four-time gold medalist Greg Louganis as a mentor and friend, but says that the diving icon has taught him even more about life than about their sport. “Love is love,” Windle says. “No matter where you come from, your background, it shouldn’t change if you want to protect someone or look out for someone.” 

In the end, Windle says he wants his life and career to illustrate this message: “If given an opportunity, and people that love you, anything can happen.”