Headed For Worlds Debut, Diver Nike Agunbiade Is Dreaming Big
by Karen Price
Nike Agunbiade isn’t a scoreboard watcher at dive meets, both out of intention and necessity.
“I actually can’t read the scoreboard because I’m nearsighted,” she said, laughing. “I have to try really hard, and then it takes me way too long to process it. But, honestly, as long as you do the best you can and try to stay as consistent as possible, there’s a good chance you’re going to do well in the meet.”
That was her approach at last month’s USA Diving National Championships, where a battle for not only second place but also the second spot on the World Aquatics Championships roster in the women’s 10-meter platform came down to Agunbiade and Jordan Skilken in the final round. Agunbiade finished with 613.95 points, Skilken with 602.70. (Olympian Delaney Schnell took the title.)
Now Agunbiade, a 22-year-old from Pacifica, California, will make her world championships debut next month in Fukuoka, Japan.
Agunbiade, who just wrapped up her senior season at the University of Southern California, still feels like things are happening quickly in her career.
As a child, Agunbiade was a gymnast. She started as a preschooler, and by the sixth grade she was training 20 hours a week. However, her interest was also waning — she enjoyed the bars but cared less and less for the other apparatuses — and eventually decided to quit and put her attention elsewhere.
She just didn’t know where.
“My mom was like, ‘You can’t just do nothing but school. You can join the band, or you can try another sport,’” she said. “And I am not very musically inclined. So a couple of my old teammates had started diving and one summer I decided to try it and ended up liking it.”
Having a background in flipping and air awareness helped her transition to her new sport, Agunbiade said. So did her experience in taking detailed directions from coaches and applying their instructions to what she was learning. The sport’s supportive atmosphere helped get her hooked.
She didn’t start competing at the Junior Olympic level until high school, and even then she wasn’t thinking about having a Division I diving career, much less one with Team USA.
“I started competing, and then the people who were on my team and their parents were like, ‘You could probably go to college and do this,’ and I was like, ‘What? That’s an option?’” she said.
Agunbiade got a scholarship to USC, and at the beginning of her freshman year she told head coach Hongping Li that her goal was to compete internationally. The Olympic Games, she said, felt like a dream, but not one she’d actually reach.
“And Hongping was like, ‘That’s great; we’ll really work on it step by step.’” she said. “You just have to focus on little details and working the best you can, working as hard as you can, and the results will come.”
Agunbiade was named Pac-12 Diving Freshman of the Year, but the COVID-19 pandemic hit before she had the chance to compete at the NCAA championships. The following year, she became the first Black diver in USC history to win a Pac-12 title in 3-meter, and did so by almost 40 points. This year, she added a Pac-12 platform title and became the first Black woman in Pac-12 and USC history to win two conference diving titles.
She’ll also be the second Black diver to compete at the world championships for the U.S., and the first was just last year. She and Kristen Hayden could both become the first African American divers to represent the U.S. at the Olympic Games Paris 2024.
Being able to represent possibilities to young divers just starting out means a lot, Agunbiade said, and she hopes she can inspire more people to start diving. But ultimately, she said, she’s just trying to show the best representation of herself.
“I believe that having other people to look up to is amazing and it can help inspire people to accomplish great things, but at the end of the day what you choose to do with yourself can really push you to accomplish great things,” she said. “So I try to be an example as a human who can try to do well in any situation and really work with that.”
Agunbiade went to the 2020 U.S. Olympic Diving Trials two years ago fresh off her Pac-12 championship but also knowing that her chances of making the team weren’t great. She was there more for the experience, because as much as Li likes to say every meet is the same, it’s harder to put that into practice with a trip to the Olympics at stake.
Once the world championships are over, she’ll have three days to move into a new apartment and then classes begin for her extra year of eligibility granted athletes because of COVID. She’ll use it as her training year to prepare for the 2024 U.S. Olympic Diving Trials.
Of all she’s accomplished so far, Agunbiade said, she’s most proud of how far she’s come.
“I recently watched an old video of myself diving and I was like, ‘Wow, that was not that great.’” she said. “Yeah. It was bad. I think I was, like, 12 or something like that. It was the first time I did a front two-and-a-half and I did not grab my pike at all and was just hoping for the best. It worked out somehow, but just seeing how much I’ve experienced and grown in the sport of diving, I think that’s what I’m most proud of.”