“Becoming an Olympian”: A Sit-down With Silver Medalist Michael Hixon

After taking home his second silver medal in men's synchronized diving, Michael Hixon sat down with Staff Writer Alex Noga '23 to look back on his journey so far. Also there: Hixon's father, legendary Amherst men’s basketball coach Dave Hixon ’75.

Amherst native Michael Hixon took home his second silver medal in the men’s three-meter synchronized springboard diving championships at this year’s Summer Olympics in Tokyo. His first came in the same event at Rio 2016, which was the best result in the three-meter springboard in U.S. Olympic synchronized diving history.

Aside from growing up in Amherst and attending Amherst Regional High School, Hixon has strong familial connections to Amherst College. Hixon’s father is legendary Amherst men’s basketball coach Dave Hixon ’75, who coached for 42 seasons and holds the record for the most wins in school history for any sport with 826, placing him 15th on the all-time NCAA basketball wins list. Coach Hixon, who won two national championships in 2007 and 2013, announced his retirement last April and still resides in the Amherst area.

Michael’s father is not the only Coach Hixon in the family, however. His mother, Mandy Hixon, has coached the UMass diving team for 17 years, winning the Atlantic 10 Coach of the Year award 17 times across both the men’s and women’s teams. She started her coaching career at Williams College before coming to Amherst for nine years. Fittingly, she was Michael’s first diving coach.

The Student sat down with Dave and Michael Hixon to get an inside look on their experiences leading up to and during the Olympics.

“A Hell of a Place to Grow Up”

From a young age, Michael and his older brother Matthew spent countless hours at the Amherst athletic facilities. With just a hallway separating LeFrak Gymnasium and Pratt Pool, the two boys could move between their father’s basketball practices and games and their mother’s diving practices and meets, often interacting with students and inventing games (like racquet baseball in the Coolidge Cage) to pass time. Their parents treated the experience almost like daycare — some of their student-athletes would occasionally babysit the boys when both parents were busy, something Coach Hixon believes was extremely beneficial to Michael and Matthew’s development.

When attending his mother’s diving practices, Michael constantly wanted to emulate the things he watched Amherst student-athletes do. His father describes him as a kid who “couldn’t sit still,” someone who would see other kids doing something and say, “I want to try that.” He trained at Pratt Pool with his mother when he first began diving, though he later trained at UMass once Mandy began working there in 2001, when Michael was seven years old. However, since Amherst recently renovated their three-meter board, both Michael and Dave agree that Amherst now has superior facilities, and Michael has trained there the past couple of years when he returned home.

Michael grew up playing a wide variety of sports, and was described by his father as a terrific all-around athlete, starting with travel basketball at age eight and primarily focusing on diving at 12. Michael was primed to be the starting point guard of his high school  basketball team as a freshman, but the late practices conflicted with his diving practices, leaving Michael with a choice: basketball or diving? Ultimately, he knew he wanted to take the next step in his diving career and compete at the collegiate and international level. Michael was even offered an arrangement in which he would only attend games and miss practices with the basketball team, but with two coaches as parents, he declined, knowing that it would not have been the appropriate thing to do.

Even though his parents were highly successful collegiate coaches, Michael never felt pressure to pursue a certain sport. Instead, he believes that having coaches as parents allowed him to see how college coaches think, what they value in an athlete and provided him a greater understanding of the path to success. He competed in international tournaments like the Junior Olympics in both individual and synchronized events starting as early as 2010, and as the number one ranked diver in the country coming out of high school, chose to attend the University of Texas at Austin.

There, Michael won national championships in both the one-meter and three-meter individual springboard in his first year in 2014, but was always determined to achieve more. According to his father, “his goal wasn’t to win national championships at the NCAA level, his goal was to medal at the Olympics.” Michael subsequently transferred to the University of Indiana the following year because he believed their coach, Drew Johansen, “would provide him the greatest opportunity to attain that goal,” his father said.

“A Moment of Doubt”

Michael proved to be correct. In 2016, he represented the U.S. in both the individual three-meter springboard and three-meter synchronized springboard at the Rio Olympics, winning silver in the latter competition. However, despite this triumph, Michael’s road to the Tokyo Olympics was not smooth. After graduating from Indiana University in 2018, Hixon took two years to focus on diving professionally with an eye on the 2020 Olympics. But when the Games were postponed due to Covid, rumors began to circulate that the games had been privately canceled.

Michael, who was still training in Bloomington, Indiana at the time, found himself at a crossroads. His original plan had been to end his diving career at the conclusion of the Olympics and begin an MBA program at Michigan’s Ross School of Business in the fall, as he said it would be like “one chapter ending, another chapter beginning.” Faced with uncertainty and doubt — not so much about his own abilities but rather over whether the games would even take place — Michael decided to do both. The Olympics weren’t a sure thing, but Michael remarked, “I didn’t want to postpone the rest of my life.”

Training in the middle of a global pandemic proved difficult, but Michael credits the diving community for being willing to lend a helping hand. When Michael first got to Michigan, he would train just about anywhere with a diving board, which occasionally meant diving in the backyard pools of gracious residents. When they couldn’t find pools, Michael’s girlfriend Kennedy Goss, who medaled in swimming at the Rio Olympics representing Canada, used spotting belts that function like harnesses so that Michael could practice diving maneuvers like twisters over a trampoline.

During the academic year, Michael volunteered as an assistant coach with the Michigan diving program and used their facilities to train, all while balancing his studies and networking opportunities as a first-year business student. When a variant of Covid-19 infiltrated the Michigan athletics department in January 2021 and forced all facilities to shut down for two weeks, Michael reached out to the Eastern Michigan diving coach and was able to train at their facilities and avoid taking a two-week hiatus.  

“The Process … It’s Much Bigger Than You”

To qualify for diving in the Olympics, divers must first secure quota spots for their respective country, either in the World Championship the year prior or at the World Cup just months before the Olympics, and then compete to obtain their spots at Olympic Trials.

Michael first had to compete at the FINA Diving World Cup in Tokyo in May with his synchro partner Andrew Capobianco, a 21-year-old junior at Indiana who first began diving with Michael in 2018, to secure a quota spot at the Olympics. Still ever the dedicated student, Michael had to give a final project presentation over Zoom for one of his classes while in Tokyo for the World Cup.

With their quota spot secured, the pair still had to qualify in the U.S. Olympic Trials. They did so with ease, winning the event by over 100 points. Even so, Michael describes the process of qualifying for Team USA as the most stressful part of the journey, citing the pressure divers feel when competing to secure quota spots for Team USA, as these spots are for the country rather than individuals, and divers must still then secure that spot for themselves at trials.

“It’s much bigger than you,” Michael said of the World Cup, which he described as “the highest pressure meet in the world” because it is the last chance for divers to qualify quota spots for their countries.

Add onto that the pressure unique to synchronized diving, where so much of a diver’s success depends on the performance of their partner.

“Specifically in synchro, I was competing both times with someone who hadn’t been to the Olympics,” Michael said, referring to Capobianco and his 2016 partner Sam Dorman, both of whom were first time Olympians when diving with Michael. “When someone else’s dream of becoming an Olympian depends on you, it is obviously more pressure.”

His father echoed this sentiment, as he and Mandy found themselves more nervous watching the World Cup and trials than the Olympic final because Michael was still competing to make the team.

“When we were watching Michael at the World Cup,” Coach Hixon said, “Mandy and I looked at each other and said ‘we’re really out of shape.’ We haven’t watched him dive in about nine months now and we had forgot how to cope with that nervousness — you’re ready to throw up for crying out loud.”

Even at the end of the trials, when Michael and Capobianco “could’ve done a cannonball and won it,” the pair still felt anxious watching the final dive. Once Michael had made the Olympics, however, he had already “earned so much [that] it’s like icing on the cake,” said his father.

“The (Silver) Icing on the Cake”

Following their first two dives in the Olympic final, which are automatically assigned a 2.0 degree of difficulty, Michael and Capobianco found themselves in fifth place. But, after scoring 83.64 points on their third dive, they rocketed into second place and finished the competition strong, recording at least 86 points on each of their last three dives and tallying their highest score of 88.92 on their final dive. Their total of 444.36 points was good enough for the silver medal, placing them behind only diving powerhouse China, who registered 467.82 points to win their third gold medal in synchronized diving in four synchro events.

Like all parents of Olympic athletes, the Hixons weren’t allowed to attend the Tokyo Olympics in person, which meant they had to stay up into the early hours of the morning in order to watch the action live. The finals started at 2:00 a.m. EST, and a storm had hit Amherst the night before, so Dave Hixon was up at midnight to ensure that they had computers to stream the event in case their cable went out due to inclement weather.

Once the event had ended and Michael had won the silver medal, the Hixons were shocked at the amount of outreach and congratulatory messages they received, both after Michael’s success but also during the live event itself. They decided to stay up for the remainder of the night and attended their regular 7:00 a.m. tee time at the Amherst Golf Club. For the next week or so, the Hixons couldn’t get through the parking lot following their golf outings without being stopped and congratulated by locals showing their support. Numerous former players and Amherst alumni sent Dave messages as well, which he forwarded to Michael.

Though he was considered a veteran at this year’s Olympics — Michael was the oldest out of the five members of the USA men’s diving team at just 27 years old — Michael says it is too early to definitively close the book on his diving career. He will likely reevaluate this fall after taking some much-needed rest and will take his decision one year at a time. Since his triumph at the games, Michael has thrown out the first pitch at the Boston Red Sox game on August 15, and is looking forward to visiting the White House with the U.S. Olympic team. He is currently working at an internship with an Amherst alum as part of his MBA program, and will finish his second year at the Ross School of Business this year.

Coach Hixon is enjoying retirement, though he says he misses the exchange of ideas that would occur in between and after practices among himself and his players and young assistant coaches. He looks forward to attending games this basketball season, college Covid protocols permitting, and the Amherst basketball court has been officially named after him.