Thirty-two years separated mother and son.
Michael Hixon and his mother, Mandy Hixon, had spent countless hours together, training for this exact moment. Mother and son were also coach and student, and here they were at the pinnacle of diving — the U.S. Olympic trials.
The Olympic trials in June were in Indianapolis, the same place where Mandy dove her last career dive in 1984. Everything had come full circle for the Hixon family.
“It made me have flashbacks to when we were diving together,” Mandy said. “I walked into the pool and said, ‘Wow. I was here 32 years ago standing on that platform.’ It was kind of surreal.”
Michael qualified for the Rio Olympics in two events at the trials — in the individual 3-meter and the synchronized 3-meter with his partner Sam Dorman. In an instant Michael’s life changed completely.
“The dream that I’ve had for so long is coming true,” Michael said. “It’s been our goal for a long time.”
After qualifying for the Olympics, each diver’s name is etched into the wall at the Natatorium. Michael nearly wasn’t there when they put his name on the wall.
“I got a call asking me do I want ‘Mike’ or ‘Michael’ on the wall,” Michael said. “I didn’t know that they were putting it up and I had to come back at one in the morning.”
After growing up idolizing the names on the wall, Michael was now one of them.
The journey to this moment began a decade before in the pool where Mandy has coached hundreds of other divers. While Mandy was the diving coach at Amherst College in Massachusetts, Michael would hang around during practice and started diving.
“It was never his favorite sport,” Mandy said. “He was also playing basketball, football and lacrosse.”
Michael said he just dove for fun as a kid and didn’t take the sport seriously until he was going into high school. He dropped the other three sports and decided to focus on diving. He said he saw diving as his best chance to be successful and it was his favorite sport.
However, because Michael didn’t specialize at an early age, he was behind some of the other divers.
“He needed to quickly work on fundamentals that he never had worked on before,” Mandy said. “The thing that he had going for him was he was a good athlete.”
Success came quickly as Michael went on to win nine junior national championships before he even started college. The breakthrough moment came when legendary diver Troy Dumais asked him to dive with him at an international competition.
“I remember getting the call and it was kind of like a guy in the minor leagues getting called to the majors,” Michael said. “It was absolutely special to hear that someone of his caliber would be interested in diving with me.”
However, Michael struggled against the older competition.
“It was a turning point in his career because he saw the best in the world and thought I am behind and I have to get better,” Mandy said. “I told him, ‘You need to get stronger because you are going against 25-year-olds. Be patient.”
Mandy was his coach until he was 18 and to this day, she continues to talk with him after every practice and event.
“She has been undoubtedly the biggest influence in my life in diving,” Michael said. “The amount of things we’ve been though and the amount that she’s taught me can be surpassed by nothing.”
Mandy said she never pushed Michael into diving and wanted it to be his passion. He had to be the one that wanted to go practice, she said.
Throughout their time together, they experienced the ups and downs, and the grind of intense training.
“It was always interesting because I was dealing with a teenage boy who was very driven,” Mandy said. “At times, it was difficult as you could imagine and at times it was better than you could imagine.”
Their relationship oscillated between moments of joy and moments of strife, as they would routinely spend eight hours together training.
The patience paid off for Michael as he won NCAA Diver of the Year his freshman year at Texas after winning two events at the NCAA meet.
After a successful freshman season, Michael transferred to IU so he could be coached by Drew Johanesen, who Michael said focused on the Olympics.
“I saw that Drew was the guy that knows how to get you to the Olympics and to that next level,” Michael said.
That next level would mean earning medals in Rio — something that would earn Michael another spot on a wall, the “Wall of Gods” at the IU Aquatics Center.
“My favorite thing about training here is the first time I walked into the pool you see these huge 20-feet banners of the great Olympians from Indiana,” Michael said. “I call it the ‘Wall of Gods,’ because you walk in and all of the gods are there. You see the history of who has come before you.”
Mandy said Michael always dreamed of the Olympics, not caring what sport it would be. He’s developed under her watch into one of the best divers in the world, and he said he’s ready for the grand stage, even though he said he’s just trying to think of it as just another event.
“This is the big one,” Michael said. “I’m excited to see what everyone has and see what I can put against it.”
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