David Boudia looked like a beautiful gull plunging into the water. A dive from the great height of an Olympic 10-meter platform once “petrified” him, as it would any thinking person, but the American college student was both fearless and heedless of pressure Saturday night, delivering himself into the air and then spinning and plummeting to one of the most stunning upset gold medals of the London Games.

The platform event is all about creating elegance out of terror, about overcoming stomach-clenching, follicle-raising dread. The 10-meter tower stands as tall as the top floor of a townhouse. As Boudia said, “You have to be crazy to jump from a three-story building and hit the water at 35 miles an hour.”

In addition, there was the increasingly compressed nervous pressure on the favored competitors at the Aquatics Centre, most especially on a dominant world champion from China, Qiu Bo, and a British marquee star, Tom Daley. As the competition came down to one last dive, Boudia, a brush-haired, hazel-eyed 23-year-old Purdue student, controlled his mind best and crafted the winning performance, with a wheeling back 21 / 2 somersaults and 21 / 2 twists that got the highest score of the night.

Boudia didn’t know it at the time — “Once I went into the water, I didn’t know where I was placed,” he said — but his score of 102.6 was enough to put him ahead of Daley, who had taken just a fractional lead after the fifth round. And it held up even when Qiu, the seemingly unbeatable world champion, performed a somersaulting, twisting last plunge that earned a 100.8.

Boudia finished with 568.65 points, ahead of Qiu’s silver medal total of 566.85 and Daley’s bronze total of 556.95, to become the first American man to win a 10-meter platform gold since Greg Louganis in 1988. “To think 10 years ago I was petrified to jump off a 10-meter platform, and now I’m Olympic champion, it’s crazy,” Boudia said.

Here’s how you conquer fear: You take the thing that scares you most, and you draw it over and over. As an 11-year-old, the Noblesville, Ind., resident was so frightened of heights he didn’t even like the lower platforms. But a gymnastics coach told him to practice drawing dives, tumbling maneuvers from pinnacles. So every day he drew.

“I was sitting in school and not supposed to be doing that, but I drew every single movement, fifty times,” he said. “And I conquered it.”

Boudia overcame his aversion to heights successfully enough to make the 2008 USA team and compete in Beijing, where he finished 10th. But he still wasn’t comfortable with the platform or with his response to pressure.

“I came to the point where I had to decide what I wanted to be, and I wanted to be an Olympian,” he said. “And after Beijing I decided that what I wanted was this.”

Boudia, Daley and Qiu traded leads throughout the half-dozen rounds. Boudia led after the first dive and the fourth, but Daley seized the lead after the fifth, to piercing shrieks. There were Union Jacks hanging from every available railing for Daley, an 18-year-old electrician’s son from Plymouth who had to deal with almost unbearable pressure.

Daley has been a megastar in Britain since he made the Beijing Games as just a thin-chested 14-year-old. He became Britain’s first individual world diving champion when he won the 10-meter platform event in Rome in 2009, and pictures of his flexed Michaelangelo torso plastered the London papers and Web sites to the point that he was criticized by his coach, Alexei Evangulov, for becoming too much of a celebrity at the expense of his athletic career.

Behind the curtain of exploding lights from the cameras, he was dealing with a painful, complicated back story. His father, Rob Daley, had devoted much of the last five years to promoting his son’s career, even as he battled a brain tumor. Rob Daley died a year ago.

“It’s been a very tough year for me,” the diver said. “It’s always there in the back of your head.” When Daley failed to medal in the synchronized event, a 17-year-old in Weymouth maliciously tweeted, “You let your dad down I hope you know that.” Daley was both outraged and “devastated.”

He was also clearly nervous — so nervous in the preliminaries that he tilted sideways on a dive and only barely qualified, in 15th place. Boudia was even worse — the last qualifier of all, in 18th place. But both men steadied themselves in the semifinals and climbed through the standings, Boudia into third place and Daley fourth.

“Diving is 60 percent or 70 percent mental and the rest is physical,” Boudia said after the semis. “If you can get your brain in line, it will be fine.

“There is a lot of tension. There is a lot of nerves. There is pressure. . . . If you ask all 12 divers whether they get nervous, 100 percent will say yes.”

Boudia stood up to the pressure with a relentless focus. It was needed, because he was the unlucky diver who had to go after Daley on the start list. Yet Boudia was so zeroed in on each dive that he was never bothered by the flash photography that bedeviled Daley — causing him to request a re-dive on his first appearance on the platform — nor by the tumultuous roars. He had no idea where he stood from one round to the next, “whether I was in medal contention, let alone gold.”

On the sixth and final dive, he stood on the platform, took a deep breath and threw himself trusting into the blank air. He tumbled downward, one maneuver blending into another, and a second and a half later hit the water. When he pulled himself out of the pool, he still had no idea where he stood. But everyone else knew he had taken the lead.

“You can smile, you know,” a Canadian diver told him. When the final numbers flashed on the board, Boudia stared at them in dumb amazement.

Later, he said,“It still hasn’t sunk in that this is a gold medal and I stood on a podium and the national anthem played.”

For previous columns by Sally Jenkins, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.