Olympic hopeful Kristen Hayden wasn’t always a diver, but she always loved heights.
“When I was a kid, I would always get in trouble for crawling up wall units at home and shelves in the library,” Hayden laughed.
Growing up in New Jersey, Hayden was involved in a variety of activities, including gymnastics, soccer, ballet, jazz, hip hop, water polo and cross country.
One summer, when Hayden was 10 years old, she was doing summer swim league and gymnastics. A coach at her gym said, “Why don’t you just combine the two and try diving?”
Hayden decided to try it, and because of her natural athleticism, she was good at it. When she decided halfway through her sophomore year of high school that she wanted to take it seriously, she quickly became a force to be reckoned with in the diving community.
“I love diving because I’m pushing my body beyond its limits,” said Hayden. “Diving has made it so much easier for me to face my fears, both in sport and in life. Whether it’s presenting a paper or interviewing for a job, I approach fear now from a different standpoint. I kind of like fear. I like doing things that scare me and overcoming them.”
Although Hayden had quickly become a talented diver, she often had difficulty understanding everything her coach was saying. She also struggled to understand a lot of her schoolwork
“I knew I was not dumb; however, it would take me longer than everyone else to do tasks such as grasp a concept, read a page in a book, or finish a test,” said Hayden. “My frustration grew until I was tested and discovered that I have a learning disability. I have a Central Auditory Processing Disorder, which is the inability to understand spoken language in a meaningful way in the absence of what is commonly considered a hearing loss.”
With this condition, a brain can take twice as long to process information. It explained why she read slower and took longer to finish a test. She learned that her brain could not distinguish between certain short vowel sounds, therefore hampering her ability to fully grasp certain phrases or statements or instructions. Suddenly, it made sense why she was having trouble understanding her coach.
Shortly after her diagnosis, Hayden enrolled in The Lewis School of Princeton, a school for students with similar learning disorders. As she embraced the skills and tools she needed to overcome the challenges she faced, she began excelling academically just as she had athletically. Halfway through her senior year, she relocated to Indiana to train under John Wingfield and then dove at the University of Michigan for a year before settling at the University of Minnesota, She opted to take the 2019-2020 school year off to focus on preparing for the Olympic Trials in June and plans to graduate from Minnesota with a degree in communications in 2021.
When asked what she’s learned the most from diving, Hayden said. “If you want to do something in life, it may take time and a lot of repetition, but it’s worth it.”
As Hayden looks toward the Trials this summer and beyond, she says, “I want to see where my ability takes me, and I want to push myself beyond my limits. Wherever that takes me, I’ll be happy.”
Be sure to cheer on Kristen and the rest of our Olympic hopefuls at the Olympic Team Trials, June 6-13, 2021 in Indianapolis, Ind. Tickets are on sale now.
We know that this sport is so much more than diving and that every diver has a story. We want to hear your stories and tell them. Email email@example.com to submit your story or the story of an athlete, coach or club that has inspired you. Don’t forget to use the hashtag #MoreThanDiving and to tag USA Diving when you’re telling your story!