Michael Hixon reached 2016 Olympics by staying cool under pressure

  • Michael Hixon, center, of Amherst, stands in first place after winning the boys 13-and-under national 1-meter diving title at the 2007 Speedo Junior National Championships in Mission Viejo, Calif. It was his first junior national championship. SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • Michael Hixon performs a dive during the men's 3-meter springboard final at the U.S. Olympic diving trials in Indianapolis, Saturday, June 25, 2016. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy) Michael Conroy

  • Amherst native Michael Hixon performs a dive during the men's 3-meter springboard final at the U.S. Olympic diving trials in Indianapolis, June 25. AP FILE PHOTO

  • Michael Hixon performs a dive during the men's 3-meter springboard final at the U.S. Olympic diving trials in Indianapolis, Saturday, June 25, 2016. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy) Michael Conroy

  • Some of Michael Hixon’s diving awards are shown. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Mandy Hixon, left, and Dave Hixon stand on the balcony overlooking the UMass Boyden Pool. The parents of Michael Hixon will soon arrive at the Rio Olympics to watch their son compete in the 3-meter synchronized and 3-meter individual diving. Mandy, UMass’ diving coach, coached her son through high school. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Mandy Hixon, left, and Dave Hixon stand on the balcony overlooking Boyden Pool at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Michael Hixon’s parents will be watching their son compete in the 3-meter synchronized and 3-meter individual diving at the Rio Olympics. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Public address announcer Mike Miles boomed over the speakers inside the Indiana University Natatorium in Indianapolis.

“Ladies and gentlemen, your 2016 Olympic Trials Champions and 2016 Olympic Trials competitors in the men’s synchronized 3-meter, with 1,308.36 points, Samuel Dorman and Michael Hixon, now the newest members of TEEEEAAAAMMM UUUUSSSSAAAAA!”

They stepped onto a round, blue podium and raised their hands to acknowledge thunderous applause. On Wednesday at 3 p.m., they dive in Rio.

That day in Indianapolis, Michael’s mother, UMass diving coach Mandy Hixon, held an iPhone horizontally in her left hand and tapped the screen with her right index finger, trying to preserve the moment for her husband, Amherst College basketball coach Dave Hixon, who stayed in Massachusetts.

She and her son shared their own moment before the podium. He snuck her a deck pass, and they embraced between his and Dorman’s final dive, a dive Michael admits he missed.

“I obviously had a pretty big miss in the last round. I think I let the moment get too much of me,” Hixon said during the post-event press conference with Dorman. “I started celebrating when I found you under the board. Just survive at that point.”

Hixon kept surviving throughout the Olympic trials.

He finished second in the individual 3-meter springboard behind 2012 synchronized bronze medalist Kristian Ipsen to qualify for a second event in Rio de Janiero.

That also took overcoming a potentially catastrophic miss.

NBC’s play-by-play anchor Tim Potter noted that Hixon could have scored zero points and remained in second place in the final before he attempted his fourth dive, a reverse three-and-a-half somersault in the tuck position.

Hixon nearly did both.

He entered the water closer to horizontal than vertical, creating a splash from his shoulder blades to the tips of his toes.

During the slow-motion replay, NBC analyst Cynthia Potter, a bronze medalist in 1976, noted that Hixon’s knees “don’t continue to push, and he has a disastrous takeoff. He’s squeezing so hard to try and complete the rotations. This is an Olympic Trials catastrophe.”

Mandy Hixon buried her face in her hands and ran her fingers through her hair after the miss.

Michael still finished 85 points clear of the third-place finisher, his synchro partner Dorman.

The miss ate at Hixon in the post-event interview with NBC’s Laura Wilkinson more than adding a second event to his Olympic program elated him.

“It’s sort of a weird feeling right now. I didn’t have a great list, obviously,” he said. “I was more angry than anything. I knew I had two dives left and still a comfortable lead to go and get the job done.”

Competing under that kind of pressure was nothing new to Hixon. He’s played sports his entire life and dived internationally since he was 13.

Buckling in key moments doesn’t happen often, though.

“He’s mentally pretty strong, especially in the training environment. He’s learned how to dive tired,” said Drew Johansen, Hixon’s coach at Indiana and with Team USA. “Mike has learned how to perform and to train when he’s fatigued. That gives him confidence  that when he goes into competition he’ll stay on his game.”

He’ll need to at the highest level.

Hixon called competing for Team USA at the Olympics his dream in an interview on Team USA’s YouTube page. To win a medal he’ll need to be at the top of his game for an entire program.

“It’s who can handle the pressure and rise to the occasion, that can recognize that special moment in the competition where you have to lay a dive down,” Johansen said. “Those are the ones that get into the final and the ones in the final with that same kind of way they find themselves on the podium.”

‘Kids go different ways’

Former Amherst College diver Dan Fernandez used to hang from the 3-meter diving board at Pratt Pool using only his feet.

The activity enthralled a toddling Michael Hixon, attending his mother’s Amherst College diving practice in lieu of day care.

So 4-year-old Michael learned how to hang from his feet.

Six months later he could hang for 30 seconds at a time.

Not content to play with his older brother, Matthew, he asked Mandy for workouts to keep him occupied.

She prescribed three front takeoffs, three back takeoffs and to hang from his feet three times, then go sit in the hot tub.

He dived three nights a week with her age group team until basketball started and he played point guard. Lacrosse followed in the spring, where Hixon would take faceoffs.

He found his way to the soccer field to score goals and the football field to play quarterback. Even the golf course became familiar as a way to spend more time with his dad.

“He’s always had a knack for sports. It’s his biggest thing. He has a crazy drive when it comes to athletics and working hard He’s had amazing skill at every sport he’s played,” Matthew Hixon said. “From a young age you could tell Michael had this incredible ability in terms of athleticism. He would lift himself completely horizontal on a pole with just his arms. He was always impressing older people, which I was always noticing.”

Hixon gravitated to basketball and diving during the winter months, fitting given his upbringing.

“He (dived) when he had time to do it as a time filler because he needed to be busy,” Mandy Hixon said. “Once basketball started, he would pretty much play basketball.”

He impressed on the floor almost as much as in the pool.

“He, quite frankly, would have been a four-year varsity player,” Amherst Regional coach Jim Matuszko said. “His basketball IQ was just so off the charts. As a point guard he saw things that sometimes we didn’t.”

The two sports coexisted in Hixon’s schedule for a while.

In 2007, when he was 13, he asked Mandy to take him to the regional diving championships because there wasn’t an AAU game that weekend.

He qualified for the zone championships and happened to have that weekend off, too. There he qualified for the junior nationals, where he won the one-meter springboard event and qualified for the Junior Pan American Diving Championships in Puerto Rico.

Even so, he planned on both diving and playing basketball in high school.

But scheduling intervened. Matuszko could only hold basketball practices at night because he runs his Matuszko Trucking business during the day. That conflicted with the diving practice times.

“He just couldn’t do both, and then came decision time,” Dave Hixon said. “That kind of made the decision for him. The rest is sort of history.”

Hixon dived well enough under Mandy’s tutelage to earn an athletic scholarship to Texas.

In basketball, Amherst won nearly 13 games per season during what would have been Hixon’s high school career, qualifying for the postseason every year.

“The coaching staff was talking how he would have been our point guard three years in a row,” Matuszko said. “We were talking about how good he would have been. Kids go different ways.”

Hixon clearly chose the right way.

“I think my basketball skills have been largely embellished. When a guy retires he gets better and better the longer he’s removed from the sport. I was alright. I wasn’t anything special,” he said.

“I certainly didn’t have the ability that I have in diving. I also didn’t have the passion for basketball that I have for diving. It was certainly very interesting growing up in that house, two people who are very passionate about their jobs. It was always interesting playing both those sports, having both of them watching over me.”

‘Kindred spirit’

The 3-meter springboard at the Lee and Joe Jamail Texas Swimming Center bowed three times under Michael Hixon’s weight.

He faced the white wall sectioned into rectangles with his toes touching the edge of the board.

After the third flex, Hixon snapped his ankles and leapt into the air before tucking his chin to his chest, grabbing his ankles and spinning three and a half times before straightening out to enter the water.

He stayed under for 3 seconds then shook the dampness out of his hair and eyes.

One look to the left and another to the right confirmed that he’d clinched his second title of the 2014 NCAA championships. He splashed his right arm on the surface of the water with a punch before exiting the water and greeting a mob of Longhorn teammates.

The yelling, power stomping and arm pumping didn’t stop even as he gave a soft forearm shiver to the closest teammate to greet him.

“Having my boys right there beside the 3-meter, that was unbelievable. Kind of went a little crazy after my last dive, actually,” Hixon said in the post-event press conference. “Probably a little bit too much, didn’t want to be disrespectful. Just trying to get them going.”

Hixon won both the 1- and 3-meter springboard NCAA titles that year and took seventh in the platform event.

For the first time he could recall in a competitive final, he beat Kristian Ipsen.

Ipsen roomed with Hixon during his first international trip to the 2007 Junior Pan American Diving Championships.

“He sort of changed my outlook on diving the way he was, the way he was so serious about it. The way it meant so much to him. He really changed my outlook,” Hixon said. “I don’t think I would have the same outlook on diving and the same philosophy on diving if it wasn’t for him.”

That’s why it meant so much for Hixon to finish ahead of Ipsen and to do it twice on a big stage.

Their paths would cross again at the 2015 NCAA championships and 2016 U.S. Olympic diving trials.

But those three days in Austin, Hixon owned the board.

“That’s a pretty big mountain to climb. That definitely gave me confidence to know he was beatable,” he said after winning the 3-meter springboard. “He’s been a great diver since he was 6. I’m just getting to the point where I can start to do dives on his level, compete on his level.”

After the platform final Hixon was named the diver of the meet.

A reporter asked him if he’d stay in Austin for the summer to train.

“Yes, sir,” Hixon responded.

That was March 29.

On July 10 he confirmed his release from Texas.

Indiana announced his transfer July 21.

“It was a surprise to me, a very happy surprise when he contacted us and got a release from Texas saying he wanted to come to IU. I recruited Mike pretty hard when I was at Duke University coaching the diving team there,” coach Johansen said. “He chose Texas not Duke, but our paths were obviously meant to cross. When he decided to make the switch it was a really, really good day.”

Hixon chose Indiana because of Johansen, who coached the divers to four medals at the 2012 Olympics, America’s most since 1988.

Hixon transferred from the 2008 Olympic coach in Texas’ Matt Scoggin, to the 2012 Olympic coach with an eye on competing in 2016.

“It’s the best decision I ever made,” Hixon said. “ Indiana’s definitely more me. I made that move because I thought if I was to make a run at 2016, coach Johanesen was the best man for the job. I thought he’s exactly what I needed. He’s taken my diving to another level.”

Hixon didn’t have any guarantees when he left Texas that he could go to Indiana.

NCAA rules prevent coaches from contacting athletes at other schools about potential transfers and vice-versa.

“I was actually a little bit nervous. I sort of jumped out of a plane with no parachute. I was pretty sure that once I made the decision he’d accept me,” Hixon said. “When I was allowed to call him, I gave him a call, and everything worked out.”

Bloomington, Indiana, gave Hixon a familiar feeling when he arrived prior to the 2014-15 season. It reminded him of Amherst.

“I feel right at home. Quiet, college town. Everyone there is all about Indiana,” he said. “I didn’t think I would find more people who want to win more than I do. Coach might be that guy. He’s always innovating, always wondering what’s the next step to make my kids better.

“That goes not just on the national level but the international level. ‘How do we get people to win medals — gold medals, be the best in the world?’ That’s what he wants to do. That’s what I want to do. I think I’ve found a kindred spirit in that way.”

Johansen recognizes the same spirit in Hixon.

“He gives everything every day, and he doesn’t take anything for granted,” Johansen said. “All that success he’s had in the past, he knows he can keep getting better.”

The pair’s first opportunity to show how far Hixon has come in Rio will be Wednesday at 3 p.m. in the men’s 3-meter synchronized springboard. The action will not be live on TV, but can be streamed at NBCOlympics.com.

Hixon will face both dives he missed in Indianapolis on the sport’s grandest stage.

“It’s all going to come down to quality of dives, whoever dives best on that day,” he said. “There’s a lot of great divers in this competition. Nobody’s safe.”

Kyle Grabowski can be reached at kgrabowski@gazettenet.com