Tokyo Olympics: how US diver Jordan Windle went from a Cambodian orphanage to the Games
- Windle, 22, credits his adoptive father with helping him achieve his Olympic dream. He and Jerry, who is gay, co-wrote a book on the challenges they faced
- American Olympic legend and LGBTI activist Greg Louganis describes Windle as ‘determined and dedicated’
It was at a sushi restaurantin Ford Lauderdale, Florida, recalled Louganis, now 61. Doodling on a notepad, a young Windle asked: “Mr Louganis, what do you do when the other divers talk smack about you?”
Recounting the episode to This Week in Asia, Louganis, an LGBTI activist and holder of five Olympic medals, replied: “I take it as a compliment, because if they are talking smack about me, they must see me as a threat. I don’t see myself as much of a threat, but if they feel they have to do that, I must be pretty good.”
Windle, a student at the University of Texas, Austin, will represent the US for the first time on Friday in the 10-metre platform event. If he makes it through, he will stand a chance at the semi-finals and finals on Saturday.
It will be the culmination of a long-time dream, years of hard work, and steadfast support from his father, Jerry, who is gay and adopted Windle when he was an 18-month old orphan.
Growing up was not always easy, Windle said in a YouTube interview published by his university’s sports team three years ago. He is now an anti-bullying advocate.
“Having a gay father and him being a different colour, I have been asked tons of questions and picked on a little bit. It was tough trying to understand why I don’t look the same as my dad,” Windle said.
He and his father co-wrote a book that parallels their real lives. Titled An Orphan No More: The True Story of a Boy: Chapter One, it was published in 2011 and tells the story of a rooster who yearns to be a father. The brown duckling it adopts grows up being teased for not having a mother and not looking like his father.
Jerry’s journey to becoming a father began after he retired from the US Navy and started a new job in health care. He had struggled to adopt a child as a single man in the US. After reading about a single father who had adopted a child from Cambodia, he approached an orphanage in Phnom Penh.
“The first time I saw Jordan was a photograph the adoption agency sent to me. I loved him from the moment I laid eyes on him and I made a promise that I would care for him and provide for him every opportunity to chase after his dreams until they became reality,” Jerry said in an email to This Week in Asia.
He travelled to Phnom Penh and recalled Jordan being dressed in a baseball outfit and green tennis shoes that were two sizes too big. The toddler was malnourished and suffering from scabies along with other infections. Jerry returned to Florida with him and nursed him back to health.
At age seven, Windle attended a summer camp where his diving potential was identified. At nine, Windle won his first junior-level national title. He set his sights on the Olympic Games at 10, and two years later, was one of the youngest divers to qualify for the US Olympic trials.
Having missed the mark in the past two trials, Windle was “ridiculously nervous” for the ones held in June this year.
“My dad is my biggest supporter. Throughout all the preliminaries and semi-finals, I could see him through my peripheral vision, while I was on the 10-metre competing. It really set me at ease,” Windle told USA Diving in a video interview.
Coming in second place, Windle’s dream came true – finally, he was on the Olympic team.
“[My father] was very emotional. When I made it, I could hear him yelling ‘I love you’. He was crying; I was crying. We had a huge hug for five minutes. It was the present that I wanted to give him for 15 years, to make him proud of all the sacrifices that he has made,” Windle said to USA Diving.
Said Jerry: “When he qualified for the Olympic Games, our entire life journey passed through my mind – in a flash. All the work and sacrifices he made through the years were culminating in his dream of being an Olympian, [and] came true in an instant.”
He said he would be watching his son live on television with family and friends on Friday.
Windle’s diving talent has earned him the nickname “Little Louganis”.
Louganis dominated the 3 metre springboard and 10 metre platform events in the 1980s. He is remembered for his comeback during the 1988 Seoul Olympics when he suffered a concussion after hitting his head on the springboard during qualifying rounds. Despite this, he earned gold medals in both the springboard and platform events.
Louganis had discovered just months earlier that he was HIV-positive but his coach Ron O’Brien believed that given the nature of diving, the diagnosis would not pose a threat to anyone. There was a scare when the doctor who stitched up Louganis after his 1988 accident did not wear gloves, but he later said studies had shown the risk of transmission was very low, even in contact sports such as football.
Louganis disclosed he was gay at the 1994 Gay Games and that he was HIV-positive a year later.
In many ways, threads of Louganis’ life mirror Windle’s, who is straight.
Louganis, who is of Northern European descent, was adopted at nine months old. His skills caught the eye of an Olympic champion, Sammy Lee, who saw him score a perfect 10 at the 1971 Junior Olympics when he was 11. At 16, he bagged his first Olympic medal, a silver. Two years later, he won his first world title under coach Ron O’Brien.
Coincidentally, O’Brien’s son was the one who spotted Windle’s talent. “Hey Lougo, you have to see this kid and tell me what you think,” Louganis recalled Tim O’Brien saying.
“Often, people would show me a young boy and ask who they remind me of. But this time, I meant it. Jordan did remind me of me,” Louganis said.
On the namesake “Little Louganis”, the diving legend said: “It makes me smile, and I hope he interprets it good-heartedly and not as pressure to any records I may still have. The art is going to be in the creation and the performance, not the scores or the medals.”
Windle’s journey to the Olympics has also struck a chord among people in his birthplace, Cambodia. In 2016, Windle returned to the Southeast Asian country for the first time and received a warm welcome, with one of his hosts being government minister Sun Chantrol.
The trip evoked mixed feelings for Windle. “It was life-changing. I would see young kids just running on the streets with no parents, naked, they just don’t realise what they don’t have,” he told US media outlet Spectrum News. “I just wish I could do a lot more.”
Windle has a tattoo of the Cambodian flag on his upper arm that is noticeable every time he dives. His recent Facebook posts were flooded with comments containing the national flag. Messages of support from Cambodians eager to watch his Olympic performance poured in.
“The Kingdom of Cambodia will always stand by you, your journey and dedication is truly an inspiration to all of us. We’ll be following the Olympics and hope to see you again in Cambodia,” local fashion designer Remy Hou wrote.
Vanna Hay, a Cambodian political activist in Japan, said in a Facebook comment that he was proud to welcome Windle to Tokyo, while others lauded Windle for carrying the “Khmer warriors’ blood”.
Windle said to USA Diving that he wants to start a diving programme in Cambodia and is studying to be a coach.
“Becoming an Olympian was one of the biggest steps that I could [take] to hopefully make my name into something greater, so I can have the opportunity to make change,” he said.