Born to swim
Texas' Michael Hixon credits parents for teaching toughness
AUSTIN, Texas - If multiple 2014 NCAA Division I titles don't convey diver Michael Hixon's commitment to craft, consider his non-verbal communication as he was honored for winning the 1-meter springboard event on Thursday night.
The Texas freshman first glanced toward the highest seating tier in the Lee and Joe Jamail Swimming Center, to hand-signal his mother, Mandy Hixon.
"I was walking up to get my award and I'm looking at it, and I'm going, 'was my aim a little short?'" Hixon said of the quick exchange. "'No?'"
His mother's support extends beyond typical maternal reassurance. Mandy Hixon recently completed her 13th season is the men's and women's diving coach for UMass Amherst, and is a former collegiate standout herself.
"She's taught me everything I know," said the son, who also won Friday's 3-meter springboard title. "I guess more than anything, to be tough the whole time. Hard work is the only thing that matters at the end of the day."
As the son of coaches -- father David Hixon is the longtime (37 seasons) head men's head basketball coach at Amherst (Mass.) College - Michael relished the fact his parents were able to watch the Longhorns compete in this week's 2014 NCAA Division I Men's Swimming & Diving Championships. Because of distance and coaching obligations, they saw him dive live for the first time in NCAA action.
Older brother Matthew, a junior film major at Wesleyan College in Middletown, Ct., couldn't attend because of class obligations. He, however, was involved.
"I texted him a picture of Michael on the podium (Thursday night) and he texted back all exclamation points," Mandy Hixon said.
Regardless of the outcome of the third-day NCAA meet -- the final diving event, the platform, was scheduled for Saturday night - Michael Hixon's ascension to NCAA prominence represents a familial evolution.
"I grew up in the pool and the gym and wouldn't have it any other way," he said.
"Because I'm a college coach, my boys were at my practices every day," Mandy Hixon said. "That's just the way it was. I was changing diapers, coaching."
Michael's introduction to the diving well came during his mother's eight-year tenure at Amherst, prior to her move to UMass Amherst. One of the male Amherst divers could hang upside down by his feet from the 3-meter board, a trick that entranced her then-4-year-old youngest son.
"Michael thought that was the coolest thing in the whole world," Mandy Hixon said. "So the first thing he learned to do was hang by his feet from the 3-meter. He was like a bat and he could do it for 30 seconds and that was his thing "
After-school routines led to jumping off boards while Mom coached. As a 13-year-old, Michael, involved in basketball, football and lacrosse at the time, opted to participate in a junior regional meet one winter because he was at loose ends without basketball practice that particular weekend.
One victory quickly led to more, until he participated in his first international meet in San Juan, Puerto Rico. At the onset of his freshman year in high school, Michael Hixon decided to forego football. He tried out for the varsity basketball team and made it - the first freshman to do so in 20 years, per his mother - but decided to forego that sport, too, once he discovered diving and basketball practices conflicted.
He became a diver.
"It was totally on him," Mandy Hixon said. "He'd be like, 'Mom, c'mon. We're going back to the pool.' I couldn't push him because the passion had to come from him. And that's why I think it's easy for him in college because he already had the passion. He wants to do the sport because he wants to do the sport, not because I had him do the sport."
Mom, an All-American diver at Ohio State, made sure he did it her way. In the beginning, daily training sessions weren't prime mother-son bonding time.
"It was hard coaching your son, a teenage boy," Mandy Hixon said, noting she and Michael often dove side-by-side as part of the instructional process. "Two teenaged boys -- but I'm spending six hours with a teenage boy who's going through all the changes that they do, and we banged heads quite a bit -- and one that's so hard-working and wants to be so successful. So we had our moments of it being iffy and tough."
Now, the pressure's off. This weekend, Mandy and David Hixon sat in the stands, wore orange and black Texas shirts and cheered like other, surrounding parents. She's thrilled with Michael's freshman progress under Texas diving coach Matt Scoggin, but more so because she and David could savor the meet.
"It's really enjoyable watching this meet and not being his coach because I can just sort of relax and I get to see his improvement," Mandy Hixon said. "It's wonderful, it's great."
She cites Michael's increased strength from college weightlifting, saying it has led to jumping higher and generating more power. Although the choice of Texas was his, she only counseled him to choose a program where he would be pushed in practice by equally talented teammates.
"It's just sort of all working really well for him," Mandy Hixon said. "And he's progressing as he should be progressing, and I'm just so proud of him. It's great to watch."
David Hixon, whose Amherst basketball teams have won two NCAA Division III national titles (2006-07 and 2012-13) might not be as calm.
"Dad's good," his wife said. "He is probably a little bit more nervous because he doesn't really know diving as well. He just doesn't want his boy to get hurt."
As such, David Hixon wore one of his national-championship rings during the three-day NCAA meet, as a talisman for his youngest son.
"He never does," Mandy Hixon said, laughing. "He said, 'I thought I'd wear it for good luck, for Michael.'"