(Top to bottom) Michael Hixon and Andrew Capobianco.
ATLANTA – Michael Hixon wasn’t left high and dry when Sam Dorman, his partner in winning the Olympic silver medal in 3-meter synchronized diving, decided to retire.
Dorman gave Hixon and Indiana University diving coach Drew Johansen a heads-up a few weeks prior.
It just so happened that Johansen already had someone in mind to twist and flip next to the Olympian. After all, when Andrew Capobianco became a Hoosier, the coach suggested the freshman use Hixon – a redshirt senior – as a model and mentor while transitioning from a 10-meter platform specialist into a 3-meter contender.
“We changed all of his techniques to match Mike’s,” said Johansen, a diving coach for Team USA at the Olympic Games Rio 2016. “We had done that about a year ago, just knowing that those techniques were successful, especially in the way they walk down the board. So Andrew really has done a great job reinventing his springboard diving and it’s allowed him to get to this level.
“Then when it was time to put them together, there wasn’t much more that needed to be done.”
And presto! They won Monday in their first meet as a duo.
A mere five days after Dorman officially announced his retirement, Capobianco and Hixon captured the gold at the USA Diving Winter Trials at the 1996 Olympic pool at Georgia Tech.
“I think there’s a ton of potential,” Hixon said of their prospects for the Tokyo 2020 Games, a little more than a year and a half away.
They scored 854.34 points, easily outdistancing Jordan Windle and Mark Anderson (755.79) and Jacob Fielding and Lyle Yost (679.53). Hixon and Capobianco also qualified for select grand prix meets in 2019 as well as for the World University Games, unless they go to the world championships instead.
“That’s our starting point,” Johansen said to Hixon after they sealed the victory.
Coming out of the preliminaries with 411 points, the pair scored 443.34 on their final six dives. With that list, the coach said, “Our target score for the (Olympic) gold is somewhere around 450-460, so they’re getting close already.”
Capobianco, 19, said diving alongside Hixon was “definitely a goal. Coming to IU, I saw that in the future possibly, so it’s exciting to see how it’s going so far.”
He remembers watching Hixon and Dorman at the Rio Games on television and seeing “the passion for each dive and being focused on each other but also themselves and just hitting dives every time.”
Dorman, 27, struggled with a back injury in 2017, requiring surgery, before finishing fifth with Hixon at the FINA World Cup last June. But he said in an online letter to fans Wednesday that “I know my body can no longer withstand the extreme intensity of training and perfection that this sport demands.”
He said of Hixon, “I could not have asked for a better Olympic teammate.”
Hixon, 24, who graduated from Indiana in May, said what keeps him going is “stuff like today. That was so much fun out there diving with Andrew and I just keep chasing that feeling.”
And chasing the Olympic gold medal? “Absolutely,” he said.
Johansen said Hixon “still thinks there’s work to be done. He has the silver medal, four points away from that gold (won by Great Britain's Chris Mears and Jack Laugher)."
Actually, said, Hixon, “4.11, but who’s counting.”
Competing as an individual on springboard, Hixon is also progressing. He was 10th in Rio and made the final at the World Cup this year in China, placing ninth.
The Amherst, Massachusetts, native was second at nationals last May in Dallas. Who beat him? Why, Capobianco, who edged him by 2.35 points.
They’ll compete against each other, as well as four-time Olympic medalist David Boudia (who has switched from platform to springboard) in the 3-meter event Thursday.
“You don’t want your partner to be someone who’s not a contender in the individual event,” Hixon said.
Dan Laak, USA Diving’s High Performance Director, called the performance by Hixon and Capobianco in their first meet together “pretty impressive."
But he noted that Hixon and Dorman were only a team for two months before winning the Olympic silver medal, the highest finish ever by Team USA in that event.
“When you put two elite athletes together, and especially with the same coach, things happen pretty quickly,” Laak said.
Hixon and Capobianco scored a whopping 93.84 points on their fifth dive, an inward 3 ½ somersault tuck, with most judges awarding them 9.00 and 9.50.
“The synchro was great and the entry was not a splash and it’s a high degree of difficulty dive (3.4),” Laak said. “So if you’re in the 90s on your optionals, you’re going to be in the hunt for a medal, that’s for sure.”
On their last dive, a forward 4 ½ somersault tuck with a degree of difficulty of 3.8, Hixon and Capobianco scored 84.36.
“They were just a little bit off on that one,” Laak said, “but they actually did one in warmups that would have been 95 or 100 points. I know they can do it. It’s just a matter of them doing enough of them together before the competition, and then they’ll be all right.”
Johansen said having both divers train in the same pool and with Hixon in need of a synchro partner, it was “a little bit serendipitous” to put them together.
They went to a synchro camp and were assessed by judges, who gave them some pointers. From there, the partnership “was a no-brainer,” Johansen said. “They’re both great competitors. When they get nervous, they rise up. That’s kind of been Andrew’s junior career. He’s been known to have these stellar performances when the lights are bright, and Mike certainly as well, and that’s what’s going to make them a great team.”
The athletes agreed that the hurdle – in which the diver gets height from the board before executing the dive – was the hardest part to perfect.
After that, said Hixon, the challenge was in “figuring each other out, how everybody ticks. You go to these high-level competitions, which are high intensity, and you’ve got to make it work.”
This was Capobianco’s first meet doing synchro on 3-meter, though he had successfully partnered with Tarrin Gilliland in mixed synchro on platform.
While growing up, Capobianco, of Holly Springs, North Carolina, was more proficient on platform, which is typical among young divers.
“At the younger ages they can develop quicker on tower,” Johansen said. “And then he’s kind of filled out, his body weight has picked up and he’s bending the board a little more than he did when he was 15 years old.”
At the NCAA Championships, Hixon was third in 3-meter and won the 1-meter (which is not an Olympic event) while Capobianco was eighth in 3-meter, third on platform and 11th in 1-meter.
“We’re learning so much from each other,” Hixon said. “He’s doing so many good things. It’s really been the last year he’s come down to 3-meter and really shown everybody how good he is.”
Capobianco gives Hixon some credit for that.
“It was pretty exciting just watching him in practice every day and seeing how he trains,” Capobianco said. “It’s been good to model myself around that.”
While Dorman mostly trained in Miami, Hixon and Capobianco have the luxury of working out together all the time.
“Andrew pushes Mike every day because he’s hungry,” Johansen said. “He’s coming in wanting to get everything he can out of it and Mike is a tremendous mentor for Andrew, so it’s a really nice match.”
Capobianco will probably redshirt next year at Indiana, putting him on the same academic track that Hixon was on before Rio.
“I’ve already been through it,” Hixon said, “so I get to watch him do it, and that’s pretty exciting and will be cool to watch.”
Johansen, who gives each athlete a fist bump and a few key words before every dive, compared his new dynamic duo to some of the more successful Team USA synchro pairs over the years.
“You had David Boudia with Steele Johnson on the platform, a veteran diver bringing a young diver along. And they won the silver medal in Rio. And then you had Kelci Bryant and Abby Johnston on 3-meter and Kelci was an Olympian in 2008 and kind of mentored Abby through it (when they medaled in 2012).
"Now we have Hixon-Capobianco, the veteran medalist with the young rising star.”