Olympics: How Amherst’s Michael Hixon learned to love synchro diving

  • United States' Michael Hixon and Andrew Capobianco compete in the men's synchronized 3m springboard final at the Pan American Games in Lima, Peru, Saturday, Aug. 3, 2019. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo) Moises Castillo

  • Silver medalists United States' Sam Dorman, right, and Mike Hixon pose after the men's synchronized 3-meter springboard diving final in the Maria Lenk Aquatic Center at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2016. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham) Matt Dunham

Staff Writer
Published: 7/26/2021 3:12:09 PM

Michael Hixon dreamed of an individual Olympic medal — to be one of the three best divers in the world.

The Amherst native made seven straight national teams individually and has a bronze medal from the 2015 World Championships to show for it.

“Everybody starts out diving as an individual. That’s really what it’s all about. I would say there’s a little more prestige in that,” Hixon said. “I always felt like I was in that next tier, always pushing to get into that first tier where you are a medalist. Forever chasing that, I guess, is how I felt.”

He’s probably out of chances now after he didn’t qualify for the Tokyo Olympics individually. Hixon will likely retire and focus on business school and a career in the finance industry after he leaves Tokyo. But there’s a silver lining: Hixon, 27, will compete in the men’s synchronized springboard event for the second straight Olympics seeking a second medal. He and Sam Dorman captured silver in Rio De Janeiro five years ago, and Hixon now works with fellow Indiana product Andrew Capobianco chasing more hardware.

“The thing for me, the dives are so hard that it does take so much individual work for your own dives to be at that level so someone else can depend on you. For me, this year especially, somebody else depending on me and my performance was really big for me at Trials,” Hixon said. “Somebody else looking at me and needing me to perform for them to be successful as well — you’ve got to get up for that. You’ve got to bring your best because you’re bringing it for somebody else. It’s not just about you.”

Capobianco — a 21-year-old junior from Holly Springs, N.C. – is the latest in a line of Hixon’s legendary synchro partners. Hixon first dove with Troy Dumais, a 2012 bronze medalist, when they surprised and qualified for the 2013 World Championships in Barcelona. He’s also mirrored Christian Ipsen (Dumais’ partner in 2012), Dorman and Capobianco.

“I dove sort of in between eras, which was great because I feel like I’ve dove with every great American in synchro,” Hixon said. “I’ve dove with all these guys who are part of what it is to be an American three-meter diver.”

He embraced the discipline over the past five years after considering himself primarily an individual diver in 2014-15, even up to the last Olympics. Hixon then realized the opportunity synchro presents to win a medal. Only eight teams reach the final: the host country and seven qualifiers. Hixon and Capobianco helped the U.S. qualify for the spot back in April.

Countries can only send one team, which blunts the advantage of a nation like China that can stack individual podiums with multiple divers.

“If you’re a country and you have one great individual, but not a second great individual, that synchro team’s not going to be as good,” Hixon said. “Synchro gives an incredible medal opportunity and that’s what made me really want to invest myself.”

But after Rio, he was a synchro diver without a partner. Dorman retired in 2018 due to a back injury. There weren’t many Americans on the level that could take his place. Purdue’s Steele Johnson or David Boudia would have worked, but they were on a synchro team together and didn’t want to consider Hixon.

USA Diving High Performance Director Dan Laak prefers to let the coaches and divers pick their synchro teams rather than mandating it from the top down, Hixon said.

“David and Steele decided that they wanted to be a team. The high performance system is a lot different than it was. In 2016, we would have broken it down and been pragmatic and picked the best team,” Hixon said. “Because of that those two decided to dive together, and I was in no man’s land because of it.”

Thankfully for him, Hixon was still in Bloomington, Indiana, with Drew Johansen, his college coach and the Team USA head coach, who had a plan. Capobianco was a sophomore for the Hoosiers. Johansen modeled Capobianco’s diving after Hixon’s, foreseeing a productive partnership.

“He saw that potential even more than I did,” Hixon said.

At the time, Capobianco wasn’t completing all of the dives necessary for high-level international competition. Training with Johansen, he’s become one of the world’s best. He qualified for the individual Olympic springboard competition after rallying from a sixth-place finish in the Olympic Trials semifinals.

“Incredible. It happened so quickly. He got so good so fast. The way that Drew forces his athletes to think about diving to learn the sport is incredible,” Hixon said. “It forces people, once they get in that program, to really accelerate quickly. He’s such a technician. You learn diving in chains almost where everything is connected to something else.”

When Capobainco and Hixon started diving together, Capobianco couldn’t even do dive 109C — the four and a half somersault tuck that clinched the silver medal in Brazil. Now he has one of the top 109Cs in the world.

“(Johansen) was right. For me, it was great, I just want a chance to beat David and Steele after the way that all went down,” Hixon said. “You can deny me a tryout, a way to even get on this team, and I’ll find a way to beat you.”

The Olympic Trials weren’t close. Hixon and Capobianco had the Olympics berth locked up before they stepped on the board for their final dive.

“The biggest thing for me was learning how to dive synchro. I had never really done synchro in the past, and especially coming in, your first real synchro partner is the Olympic silver medalist from the last Olympics,” Capobianco said after the Trials. “He took me under his wing, and it’s been really special.”

No synchro teams remain intact from the Rio games. Hixon is one of five returning divers along with Great Britain’s Jack Laugher — a defending gold medalist, Germany’s Patrick Hausding, Giovanni Tocci from Italy and Evgeny Kunetsov, representing the Russian Olympic Committee.

No American men’s team has ever won gold in the men’s synchronized springboard at the Olympics. Hixon and Dorman posted the nation’s best-ever finish in Rio. China has won three of the event’s five gold medals since its introduction in Sydney in 2000.

In synchro, there’s only a final. No prelims, no warm up, just six dives to determine champions at 2 a.m. Wednesday on USA Network. The first two dives are called “voluntary” and automatically assigned a 2.0 degree of difficulty. Divers will typically place simple dives in those slots to build a strong base. The remaining four are assigned a fixed degree of difficulty based on the number of somersaults, twists, the position, approach and entry.

A panel of 11 judges will generate scores from one to 10. Five of them are scoring the synchronization, and three focus on each individual diver. The high and low scores from each of those three sections will be eliminated, then the remaining five scores are added together and multiplied by the degree of difficulty. On the voluntary dives, scores in the 50s keep you in medal contention. A 100-point dive is rare but can be achieved.

The dives Hixon and Capobianco will perform in Tokyo match up with any team in the world. How they execute will determine if they come back with a medal.

“The dives are so hard individually, that’s where your focus has to be. You’ve got to hit that dive individually,” Hixon said. “Your synchro timing and stuff, that’s what you work out in practice, you set the same foundations, and once you do that you kind of have to forget about it and focus on hitting the individual dives.”

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


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