Olympics: Michael Hixon balanced business school, diving practice amidst pandemic to qualify for Tokyo games

  • Michael Hixon, left, kept a busy social schedule at the University of Michigan last fall amidst his first year of business school and training for the Tokyo Olympics. COURTESY JOE RIPPLE

  • Amherst’s Michael Hixon, second from right, lived with three other Michigan buisncess school students in Ann Arbor, Mich., this fall while he started an MBA program and trained COURTESY JOE RIPPLE

  • Amherst’s Michael Hixon, left, and his girlfriend Kennedy Goss, a Canadian Olympic swimmer in 2016, trained together in Amherst early last year before the pandemic postponed the Olympics. COURTESY JOE RIPPLE

  • Amherst’s Michael Hixon, right, lived with three other Michigan business school students in Ann Arbor, Mich., this fall while he started an MBA program and trained for the Tokyo Olympics. COURTESY JOE RIPPLE

  • Amherst native Michael Hixon’s diving career extended a year longer than he planned when the Tokyo Olympics were postponed to 2021. AP FILE

Staff Writer
Published: 7/26/2021 7:17:24 PM

Michael Hixon the Olympic diver didn’t plan to coincide with Michael Hixon the University of Michigan MBA student.

The Amherst native and 2016 Olympics synchronized diving silver medalist was supposed to finish his diving career at the Tokyo Olympics in July 2020 and start graduate school in Ann Arbor a few months later. No overlap.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced Hixon — like most of the world — to alter his plans.

“Diving hung around a little longer than I thought it would,” said Hixon, 27. “I love diving. A little more time diving is absolutely time well spent. The way this year has unraveled has been a little strange. I don’t think anyone had the ideal year.”

Amid pool closures and meet cancellations, Hixon continued training for an Olympic Games he wasn’t always sure would still be happening. That meant finding covert boards and pools and occasionally bending some rules.

Hixon and his girlfriend, Canadian Olympic swimmer Kennedy Goss, came to Amherst at the onset of the pandemic in February. Mandy Hixon, Michael’s mother and longtime UMass diving coach, asked UMass athletic director Ryan Bamford if Michael could use UMass’ facilities.

“Ryan was like, ‘He can train here if he wants,’” Mandy Hixon said. “Because we thought the Olympics were going to happen (in 2020).”

So for about a month, Michael Hixon and Goss prepared at UMass either early in the morning or at night once the staff went home. Michael Hixon worked with Mandy Hixon, his first coach and a 17-time Atlantic 10 coach of the year. Dave Hixon, Michael’s dad and the longtime Amherst College men’s basketball coach, held the stopwatch for Goss while she churned miles in the pool.

The Tokyo Olympics were postponed a year March 24, 2020. Goss ended her swimming career that day. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in psychology at Columbia.

Hixon kept going.

“That was one of the big things, they trained together,” Mandy Hixon said. “When she decided not to continue swimming I think that was hard for him because they had always been doing that together.”

Maize and blue

Most pools were still shuttered when Hixon moved to Ann Arbor on Aug. 1, 2020, to begin graduate school. He moved into a house with three other Ross School of Business students. Joe Ripple had already signed up one roommate through a department-wide channel and was looking for two more when Hixon reached out.

“It’s almost funny, Mike’s level of humility. He avoided mentioning that he was an Olympian. I think he even said he’d never had a real job,” said Ripple, who is from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. “We looked him up to make sure he was normal on LinkedIn and saw for ourselves.”

Hixon moved in the same day as Ripple and helped him carry his belongings up the stairs. The roommates regularly watched sports in the basement and played board games. He woke up at 5 a.m. each morning to accommodate two diving practices sandwiched around back-to-back graduate school business classes.

“Living with him makes anyone feel lazy,” Ripple said. “You see how disciplined and methodical he is on the diving board and that definitely manifests in how he plays games like Settlers of Catan or chess. He’s definitely the guy who wins in the last few moves and sneaks up behind you and wins that way.”

Early that fall, Michigan’s pool still wasn’t open. Hixon and Michigan coach Mike Hilde, who started coaching him when he arrived there, kept up the guerilla diving in any available pool. They brought a board from Ann Arbor to the Chippewa Club in Ypsilanti, Michigan to work on hurdles. Hixon even dove in a stranger’s backyard a few times.

Mackenzie Crawford is also from Ypsilanti and competes for Ohio State. Her backyard features a full dive well along with both one-meter and three-meter boards.

“Michael Hixon will find water wherever water is available. A lot of that’s his drive and his passion to not be pushed out,” Hilde said. “You’re training. Even if it’s not the best training, you’re doing something over nothing.”

Hixon became a volunteer assistant coach with the Wolverines so he could use the Donald B. Canham Natatorium once it opened. Michigan was following fairly strict COVID protocols and wouldn’t let anyone not affiliated with the university into the facility.

“I can’t really have envisioned myself in an ordinary circumstance leaving Indiana,” Hixon said. “Continuing diving, I was going to have to be diving at Michigan.”

He and Hilde drilled down to granular, fundamental details to help Hixon find the fractions of percentages of improvement he needed. It was more collaboration than direction.

“He is the most intense human being I’ve ever coached, in a good way. Every second on this deck is a moment of focus. His attention to detail, his ability to stick with his routine is far beyond anyone I’ve ever seen,” Hilde said. “You had to be on your game every day you’re coaching Mike.”

His diving along with readjusting to academic life in US News & World Report’s 13th-ranked MBA program kept Hixon’s schedule full. He had spent the previous two years solely diving professionally after graduating from Indiana University. Despite being near the top of one field, he felt behind his classmates who had years of consulting experience or who had matriculated directly to graduate school.

“When you’re an undergrad, the majority of the time you’re hanging out with other student-athletes. Their main focus is their sport, too,” Hixon said. “In an MBA program there are no other student-athletes. There’s nobody else who’s getting up at 5:30 to go to practice. It’s just you.”

‘Time well spent’

Among training, classes and social obligations, Hixon also had to face the specter of his career ending at any moment if the Olympics were canceled. One meet after another didn’t happen. The senior national championships in December got wiped out, then February’s FINA World Cup in February disappeared. He’d even heard the Games were finished privately but couldn’t be announced publicly.

“He’s like ‘What am I doing mom?’” Mandy Hixon said. “He was like ‘I don’t know if I can continue doing this.’ I just said to him, ‘Michael why are you diving?’ And he’s like ‘I love to dive.’ Well then you’re going to keep doing it, you love it.”

Hilde helped motivate him during those lows. He re-framed the pursuit as worthwhile instead of futile regardless of the ultimate result.

“A lot of reasons to give up hope, and (Hilde) never did, which was huge for me. He never gave up hope about it happening,” Hixon said. “It would be, hey we’ve got to love what we were doing and love this process and if we get to the end and the Olympics aren’t happening, it is what it is, still time well spent.”

The World Cup was eventually rescheduled to April. It was the USA’s last chance to secure a men’s springboard synchronized diving Olympic spot after they didn’t achieve the necessary results at the 2019 World Championships. Purdue’s David Boudia and Steele Johnson were supposed to represent the U.S. but pulled out eight days before, leaving Hixon and his synchro partner Andrew Capobianco, an Indiana junior from North Carolina, scrambling. They were living in different cities and training separately. Capobianco’s passport didn’t arrive in the mail on time and needed to fly out later. Hixon presented one of his business school final projects from a Tokyo hotel room.

They dove together for the first time in months at the start of the World Cup and realized Capobianco had changed his hurdle to better suit his individual diving. They synched back up over the course of the next few dives and finished fourth, just qualifying the United States’ place at the Olympics.

Hixon typically slots his worst dives at the front of the meet and his higher scoring ones near the end. He refers to them as the front half and the back half. So in the beginning he appears further back in the standings than he actually is, lying in wait to charge back with big numbers at the end.

“He’s always sort of done well when he needs a big dive,” Dave Hixon said. “He usually hits it.”

Capobianco and Hixon trained together for three months in Bloomington after that then dominated the Olympic Trials to earn the right to represent the USA in Tokyo. Younger divers like Capobianco excelled, while veterans like Boudia and Johnson faltered.

“So much of that has to do with the COVID year, not that people gave up, but I think a lot of people struggled with this additional year,” Hixon said. “I think people were looking for different ways to adapt. I don’t think this past year has prepared them more than they would have been otherwise, but I think it’s more so about how have you prepared relative to other people.”

Now, after everything, a year later than scheduled, Hixon has a chance at another Olympic medal. No matter what happens in Japan, he’ll fly back home within a day or two then hop in his car and drive to Florida to start an internship. While the next stage of his life is approaching quickly, Hixon appreciated extending his diving career another year, squeezing every drop from something he loves.

“Incredible. How lucky am I?” Hixon said. “It really is pretty nuts.”

The men’s synchronized springboard final is scheduled for 2 a.m. Wednesday, and will be broadcast live on USA Network.

Kyle Grabowski can be reached at kgrabowski@gazettenet.com. Follow him on Twitter @kylegrbwsk.

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