Christina Loukas dives in the three-meter springboard final at the U.S.… (Otto Greule Jr. / Getty Images )
The front 21/2 with the full twist was an easy one. Maybe the thrall and sparkle of Christina Loukas' first Olympics didn't survive into a southern Indiana winter, and maybe the trek from her bed to the edge of the springboard felt like dragging a claw anchor through sand every day.
But this particular dive? These remarkable contortions made rote by years of muscle memory? That was easy. She could do this.
Wait, she thought. How do I do this?
"It was terrifying," Loukas said. "I literally felt like I had no idea how to do it. I couldn't visualize it. I just didn't understand how to dive."
The Chicago native recalled this ahead of a trip to London for a daunting but plausible pursuit of an Olympic medal. Loukas, 26, is no longer a dewy-eyed newbie peeking around curtains to watch majestic Chinese divers, but those Chinese divers remain duly majestic and really hard to beat.
Beating them was not a concern in the winter of 2008 and 2009, when a post-Beijing hangover had her loathing the sport. Nor was it Loukas' concern one winter later, when a fellow diver asked if she was happy, and she said no, and then quit for eight months.
It was the concern, the only concern really, when she rebooted and changed her coach and her scenery and her attitude and began a run that has instilled a cast-iron confidence.
"We're winning or I'm not going," said Kenny Armstrong, Loukas' coach for the last 21 months. "She loves it again, and when you're in that state of mind, it's easy to put in the effort that's required and easy to put the work in."
First she had to, you know, dive again.
As fine a town as Bloomington, Ind., is, the scene shift from Beijing to college burg felt like someone had stuffed Loukas' life into a wool sock. She couldn't coax herself into the simplest of dives without singing a song to distract her mind.
She'd been a diver since age 12. Two summers ago, she caught a fish on the first cast of her first-ever fly-fishing expedition. She is a natural, and so the breakdown was startling, even if she won two national events in 2009.
"I didn't really know what else to do," Loukas said. "I just kept doing it without really being truthful with myself."
Reckoning arrived early in 2010, when Olympic divers clustered for a camp in Colorado Springs, Colo. On the first night, Loukas sat down with fellow diver Troy Dumais, whom she considers something of a big brother.
"Are you happy?" Dumais asked.
Loukas recalled answering with tears. "No!" she ultimately replied. "And no one has ever asked me that!"
It was like opening the door of a pressurized cabin at 30,000 feet — freeing and petrifying all at once, because it made Loukas confront her need to leave the sport, to shed a decade of her life's work and try to be normal.
She stopped diving in February 2010. She took a trip to Boston to visit her brother. She enjoyed festivities surrounding Indiana's "Little 500," a 70-year-old campus bicycle race to benefit a scholarship fund. She worked out when she wanted to, she finished school and she moved back to Chicago.
"That's when I decided to go back," Loukas said. "Because it was something I wanted to do, not what I thought the school wanted me to do or the coach wanted me to do or my parents."
Said Stacey Loukas, her older sister: "I kept telling her, 'Picture yourself in 2012. You will be really upset if you're not there, or if you didn't try.' We all knew she'd come back. We just didn't know when."
Actually, it was a matter of where and who.
Armstrong's Woodlands Dive Team program has produced multiple national club championships at the junior and senior levels. He changed Loukas' out-of-the-pool regimen, deemphasizing weight training and infusing more Pilates and yoga into the mix, and Loukas is a leaner diver as a result. She "looks the part," as Armstrong says.
As crucial: If the approach is still gold-oriented, so to speak, it is not oppressively so.
"He's so much fun to work with," Loukas said of Armstrong. "He's always — like always — joking around, dancing, singing on the deck. When I was training at Indiana, it was like it was my job. And I wasn't enjoying it at all."
When she made the Olympic team as a fledgling 22-year-old in 2008, she took curious between-dives peeps at the Chinese contingent's performance and left Beijing content to make the finals and finish ninth.
More recently, she finished fourth in the 3-meter at the 2011 world championships, the first top-four finish in 3-meter for a U.S. woman at worlds since 1994. She took a bronze medal in the 3-meter at the Tijuana leg of the 2011 Diving World Series. And if she found herself looking at the Chinese, it was only to see if they returned her gaze over their shoulders.
"I definitely feel like I belong this time and I deserve to be there," Loukas said. "I looked at each of my dives from [the world championships] and there are just small changes that I need to make to take it to the next level, to be competitive with the Chinese. So I know I'm right there."
One of Loukas' most significant lessons, gleaned from Armstrong, goes something like this: No matter what, you want to go into a fight knowing that you are giving it all you have to give.
Not quite two years ago, Christina Loukas once again gave herself over to diving. She finds out what diving has to offer back soon enough.