Just two months before the 2016 Olympic trials, Sam Dorman thought his diving career was over.
When the first-time Olympic diver and four-time national team member learned he had herniated a disk in his back, his first thought was that he was done and that this was the end of his career.
His heart sank, and he immediately started to cry.
“To know my career had ended and I was that close—Olympic trials were just around the corner—it was devastating,” Dorman said. “I felt like I had nothing because diving was my whole life at the time.”
But his doctor was quick to reassure him that the injury was something treatable and wouldn’t keep him from his Olympic dream.
Dorman’s goal of recovering in four weeks to be able to train for Olympic trials pain-free was lofty, said his physical therapist in Miami, Jeff Ruiz. But he did it.
“The program he designed was very intense and very difficult, but every day I thought, ‘All right, I need to grind through this day and work my ass off to get my back healed up,’” Dorman said.
But this wasn’t his first serious injury or his first time struggling to get back on the board.
He’s shattered his right foot, had to have scar tissue scoped out of his left shoulder, broke his hand and his right shoulder has torn cartilage that he may need to have surgery on this year.
“I’ve had this dream of going to the Olympics and winning a medal,” Dorman said. “And when you see that it’s so close, there’s no way I’m going to stop,”
Even so, through the pain, sometimes he does question whether it’s physically possible for him to keep going.
“It depends if my body holds up. Sometimes my mind wants to, but my body can’t keep pushing,” Dorman said. “It changes your view [on the sport] after you continue to get injured.”
He relies on his trainer, whom he talks to every morning and night. Ruiz gives him exercises to do, and they talk about how the day went and how he’s feeling.
“He’s just all in it, all the time,” Ruiz said. “He loves it. He’s definitely not a gym rat, but he’s a rehab rat. He loves to come in and try to get better all the time.”
Dorman is always seeing a physical therapist now. He doesn’t want to let any injuries get the best of him. He starts practice by doing back and shoulder exercises, then makes sure to stretch and roll out his muscles after he’s done.
“It’s a daily thing of perfecting the process of keeping healthy,” he said. “Every time I get injured, it adds more work to my load.”
For now, Dorman’s back isn’t bothering him any more. He says he doesn’t worry about it hurting again in Rio. Anyway, when he’s in the heat of competition, the adrenaline pushes away the pain.
But if it starts hurting once he gets to Rio, there’s nothing he can do about it.
At that point, all he’ll have to focus on is winning that gold medal.