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Whirlwind diving tour reaches 2016 Olympics for Amherst’s Michael Hixon

  • 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



@kylegrbwsk
Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Fears of a catastrophic Olympics in Rio de Janeiro appear greatly exaggerated, at least to hear Amherst native Michael Hixon tell it.

“It’s funny, I think every time I’ve watched the news leading up to the Olympic games it’s sounded a lot like this. Everyone’s going to find something that’s going wrong,” he said. “Every country is generally unprepared two months out.”

Hixon has been in Brazil since July 25, finishing final preparations for the biggest dives of his life.

The Zika virus, a mosquito-transmitted disease that can cause birth defects in pregnant women, delays in construction of the athletes’ village and venues are far from his mind.

“We were actually in Rio for the (diving) World Cup in February. It’s going to be an awesome Olympics,” he said. “I hope nobody gets sick or anything, but we were all safe in February. I don’t think anybody in the entire world that went there got the virus. It is an unbelievable city. And the atmosphere, it was so great for World Cup, I can’t imagine what it will be like for the Olympics.”

Hixon flew to Rio from Houston, where he and the rest of Team USA received their official gear and were processed.

That followed four days in Atlanta that mixed training sessions and promotion in equal measure.

Around 1,500 people attended the practice sessions at Georgia Tech University, the same facility that hosted the diving events in 1996.

The “Perfect 10,” as the diving team has started calling itself, signed autographs and visited both a children’s hospital and a murder mystery puzzle room amid a flurry of interviews.

“Pretty hard to practice with that many people there,” said Dave Hixon, Michael’s father and Amherst College men’s basketball coach. “He probably got media’d out there.”

Between the U.S. diving trials in late June and the July sendoff, Michael Hixon spent time practicing with his 3-meter synchronized partner Sam Dorman in Miami and Indianapolis.

The pair dove competitively as a team for the first time at the trials and won the event to qualify for Rio.

The team trains for five hours per day, generally four hours in the water with an hour in the gym and sometimes a half hour of weights.

“Now with the degree of difficulty you need that kind of power and that kind of strength,” Hixon said.

After their initial stop in Rio for training, the diving team departed to João Pessoa, Brazil, for another camp before the events begin.

Rio will be Hixon’s first Olympic games, but he finished the 2015 world championships with a bronze medal in the 1-meter springboard.

He won two NCAA championships in individual springboard as a freshman at Texas and has been a member of the USA Diving national team since 2011.

“I think the whole diving community has seen that in Mike since he was a teenager in high school. He was one of the top junior divers coming up the ranks through diving and had quite a distinguished junior international career and junior Olympic games,” said Drew Johansen, Hixon’s coach at Indiana and with Team USA. “ He’s been on that track for a long time.”

Like all of those meets before, Hixon will step onto a blue board 16 feet long and 20 inches wide before he dives.

But the number of eyes watching and the gravity of the moment?

Unmatched.

“Right now I’m just excited for what’s ahead,” he said. “I get to compete on the biggest stage against the best athletes in the world.”

Hixon’s parents haven’t heard from him much since he got to Rio.

He’ll send a text here or there and occasionally jump on FaceTime with his mother, Mandy, who coaches diving at UMass and coached Michael until he went to college.

“He gets a bit in a competitive mode,” she said. “We keep it short and sweet right now.”

Michael qualified for two Olympic events — the synchronized 3-meter springboard and individual 3-meter springboard.

The synchronized event takes place Wednesday, while the individual event runs Aug. 15-16.

His entire family — parents Dave and Mandy and brother Matthew — will be there to cheer him on.

“It will be very special to have them down there,” Michael said.

After the synchronized event, the Hixons plan to use the off time to watch other events and sightsee a bit.

One of Dave’s former Amherst players has helped them get tickets to multiple basketball games, and there’s one 100-meter track finals ticket up for grabs.

“I have a couple friends on the swim team so I would love to support them. I don’t know how much I’ll get out of the village. I hear it’s a little bit crazy,” Michael said. “I’m looking forward to soaking in everything I can. It’s a pretty unique thing. It only goes on every four years, I’m hoping to soak in everything that I can.”

Tourism will come secondary for the rest of the Hixon clan, though.

“We’ll be tourists a little bit, but really we’re going down there to watch Michael dive,” Mandy said.

Kyle Grabowski can be reached at kgrabowski@gazettenet.com.