SWIMMING & DIVING
An American diver in London: Christina Loukas realizes dream with support of family, Greek community
By Ben Simmons
No matter how forgettable the prior season for the “Lovable Losers,” Cubs nation can take solace in knowing that each and every April presents a clean slate and another shot at breaking a World Series drought more than a century in the
In only a few weeks’ time, former IU diver Christina Loukas will mount her second challenge for a gold medal, knowing full well that a shot at diving’s Holy Grail — her “next year” — will not come again until 2016.
“Four years come down to a few minutes,” Christina’s mom, Patty Loukas, said. “It’s quite humbling. But we’re very, very ecstatic and thrilled for her. She’ll always have the title of two-time Olympian under her belt.”
Regardless of the fate awaiting her in London, Christina, the standout athlete in a large Greek family full of them, will bring a boisterous contingent of familial support across the pond and have plenty of backing stateside.
“The neighborhood, our church, the Greek community — everyone involved has been tremendous,” Patty said. “(IU Diving) Coach Jeff Huber is very supportive. Even her old coaches at Deerfield High School have been great. The whole Olympic thing is surreal. I’d never been to the Olympics until Christina made it, and I hate to sound trite, but it’s unbelievable. We feel so blessed.”
Among those who will make the transatlantic trip are Patty, who attends all of her daughter’s meets, and Stacey Loukas , Christina’s sister.
In Beijing four years ago, the two were so vocal in cheering Christina on her way to a ninth-place finish that they were both mic’d by television crews.
“There were 15 of us at Beijing pulling for Christina,” Stacey said. “My friends here in the states said they could hear us on TV from their couches. This time around, there should be 30 to 40 of us. We’ll be loud, I can guarantee you.”
“The athlete I always wanted to be”
While most north siders’ Cubs fandom is simply a matter of geography, the connection between the Loukas family and Chicago’s National League outfit runs deeper.
George Loukas, Christina’s father, owns the Cubby Bear, a fixture of Wrigleyville.
When his daughter secured her place in this summer’s Olympics, the popular bar displayed a congratulatory message on the digital marquee that sits just below the neon Cubby Bear insignia.
“That was so cool,” Christina said. “I have the picture up in my living room. I’m so fortunate. Everybody has been so supportive, from the Chicago Fire Department to people I’ve never even met.”
A fit family if ever there were one, the Loukas clan alone boasts four college football players, including Angelo Loukas, who played at Northwestern and for the Buffalo Bills, and George, who played at Southern Illinois.
Yet Christina’s agility and discipline are of such a caliber that George said of his daughter, “She’s the athlete I always wanted to be.”
“The diver,” as Christina has become affectionately known by her younger, admiring cousins, was thrown into athletics from a tender age. However, her mom gives her daughter credit for finding the will within to achieve at a high level, a sentiment Stacey echoed.
“We weren’t expected to get scholarships — we all just had fun with it,” Stacey said. “Our parents always had us playing football in the backyard and throwing balls through tires. To this day, all of us first cousins always play flag football or some other sport when we all get together, even in our 30s. But my sister has that elite ability the rest of us don’t have.”
On a getaway in Vancouver one summer, the family decided to try fly fishing for the first time.
While Stacey hooked her own arm with the line and others ran into similar struggles, Christina commanded the rod with such skill that a bystander downstream might have mistaken her for an extra in A River Runs Through It.
The instructor told Christina, who was making her fly fishing debut, that she had the look of a veteran, prompting laughs on the opposite shore from her unsurprised family.
“We have always been super competitive, whether it’s video games or board games,” Stacey said. “We pushed each other a lot growing up, but we’ve also supported her since day one. We knew she had incredible talent and needed to put it to good use.”
The Magnificent Seven
One of four siblings, Christina showcased the raw athletic talent that would eventually propel her to elite competition.
At three, she flipped and flopped her way down the hallways in the family home to the amusement of her on-looking grandparents. Her parents, recognizing her precocity, placed her in gymnastics. As she grew, so did her ability and discipline.
By the time she hit 12, she was spending four hours a day after school honing her skill set as a gymnast. Rigorous though the schedule was, she still found time to catch a glimpse of and find inspiration from the U.S. Women’s Gymnastics Team, a group of girls as uncommonly athletic and regimented as herself.
“I remember watching the 1996 Olympics and the ‘Magnificent Seven,’” Christina said. “I loved every single one of those girls: Kerri Strug, Dominique Moceanu, Dominique Dawes. I thought to myself, ‘I want to be in the Olympics.’”
Though she continued to excel, she soon ditched the mat and the balance beam
for the pool and the diving board.
The decision, coupled with her abandonment of basketball and soccer, allowed her to concentrate fully on her budding future in the world of diving, where coaches piqued her interest by telling her that her ceiling was the same stage the Magnificent Seven had used to captivate a nation — the Summer Olympics.
“The Diver” ascends
Christina cruised to several honors during a decorated high school career, including Illinois Swimmer/Diver of the Year in 2003. Despite the accolades, she said it wasn’t until she enrolled at IU that she began to realize her potential.
“I knew that moving to Indiana was the best thing for me, that I’d finally be putting in the time and effort I should be,” she said. “I had full confidence in Coach Huber in getting me to the level I wanted to go to. My training wasn’t intense before college, but it was totally different at IU. I went from training four to six days a week, twice a day — and I got the results I wanted.”
The results speak for themselves: after a promising freshman campaign that saw her earn Big Ten Diver of the Year honors and three All-America certificates at the NCAAs, she won national titles in the 1-meter event her junior and senior seasons, the latter of which she chose to redshirt to prepare for the Olympic Trials and a chance to compete in Beijing.
To book her place on Team USA’s envoy to the Forbidden City, Christina would have to finish near the top of a deep, talented field.
To her surprise, she placed first, launching herself off the 3-meter springboard and into IU — and U.S. — diving history.
“I was completely shocked that I made the team,” Christina said. “I wasn’t looking at the scoreboard at all during the competition. I ran over and hugged Jeff Huber and started crying because I was so happy, excited, shocked .”
In retrospect, she credits the unexpected success to her time in Bloomington.
“I owe my first Olympics to the (IU) team, the program, Coach Huber and everyone there,” Christina said.
Though she placed ninth in Beijing, she gained invaluable experience on the international scene and the most prestigious stage in her sport.
Burnout, then renewed belief
Soon thereafter, however, it became unclear whether she would ever draw upon that experience again. Exhausted by the grueling grind of seemingly ceaseless training, she decided to step away from the slog and reassess her priorities.
“I burned out after the Olympics; it had become a never-ending season,” Christina said. “I started having mental blocks with diving. It had gotten really frustrating, and I wasn’t enjoying the sport anymore. After the season, I just decided to step away from the sport and see if I wanted to keep doing it. I realized I had so many more goals to accomplish.”
To help make those goals more attainable, she moved in 2010 to The Woodlands, Texas, and enlisted the expertise of Ken Armstrong, a former Canadian Olympic diver turned U.S. Olympic coach.
Patty said that Armstrong, who had already guided American Laura Wilkinson to three Olympic berths and a gold medal in 2000, came out of semi-retirement to strike up a partnership with her daughter.
“Kenny has made me have a different mindset,” Christina said. “Before I moved down here, he told me that I should only come down if my goal is to win a gold medal. In 2008, I didn’t even know if I was good enough to be going to the Olympics. Now, I have more belief. I would have been upset if I didn’t make the team. It was more of a relief than anything that (trials) were over. I’m so happy to be done and ready to prepare for London.”
While Christina admits to missing Bloomington, she said the change of scenery has been overwhelmingly positive.
“As much as I loved Indiana, I had been training there for six years,” Christina said. “Everyone was younger; I felt out of place and needed a change, a new environment. I needed a new set of eyes to help with my diving. I’ve really enjoyed being in Texas, minus the weather. I decided to move down here also in part for Kassidy Cook, who is someone to push me and train with me every day.”
Due to the near-decade age gap that divides Christina, 26, and Kassidy, 17, the formation of “Kasstina,” a moniker that has been the subject of hashtags on Loukas’ Twitter account, may have seemed unlikely.
But the friendly competition, along with the unwavering, continuing encouragement from her family, has been instrumental in helping Christina flourish in Texas.
Bashful yet buoyant
Away from the pool, the most accomplished Loukas athlete might also be the most modest.
“Hungry but humble,” as her mother describes her, Christina rarely, if ever, mentions any of her numerous accomplishments as a diver.
Once, when wearing an Olympic ring that attracted a curious inquiry from a stranger, she answered in such unassuming fashion that Stacey felt compelled to interject on her sister’s behalf.
“She was asked if she was wearing it simply because she liked the Olympics, and she said yes,” Patty said. “Her sister had to butt in and tell him, ‘She’s an Olympian!’ Christina has always liked to perform, but she’s also always been so humble.”
Ahead of her jaunt to London, Christina said she has compiled the confidence to complement her humility, and her most ardent supporters agree.
Patty says she appears more mature than four years ago, having undertaken a stricter training regimen and begun living by herself, free from the distractions of a college town.
For her part, Stacey, who said she and her siblings visit Christina in Texas often, has also seen her sister’s maturation first hand.
“She knows what to expect,” Stacey said. “She knows all the girls she’ll be diving against. I don’t think her nerves will be on her mind as much as the first time around. I talked to her just a few days ago, and she’s really excited and just wants to have fun.”
For Christina, who will act as an international athletic ambassador for IU, suburban north Chicago and the Greek community, the agonizing wait for her return to competition under another set of familiar rings — the five intertwined Olympic ones — ends soon.
From August 3 to 5, she will repeatedly plunge acrobatically into a still, deep blue sea from a height of 3 meters, hoping that when she resurfaces for the last time, she will emerge on the summit of the podium — and at the top of the sport she fell out of love with, only to embrace it again.
“We’re so proud of her already,” Stacey said. “It’s a crazy, cheerful situation, and I know she’s worked so hard.
"She’s put her life on hold for diving, so for her to win a gold medal would be the absolute.”