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Eying Paris, Diver Kristen Hayden Has Representation On Her Mind Too

by Alex Abrams

Kristen Hayden prepares for a dive in the women's synchronized 3-meter springboard event during the 2021 U.S. Olympic Trials - Diving on June 10, 2021 in Indianapolis. (Photo by Getty Images)

Kristen Hayden still has a University of Tennessee T-shirt hanging on her bedroom wall, even though she decided to go to college elsewhere.

When Hayden was age 12, she attended her first USA Diving Winter National Championships and met Mike Wright, who was then a star athlete for the Volunteers and in 2010 became the first Black diver to ever win a U.S. senior national title.

Hayden admitted she was so excited when Wright autographed her T-shirt since he was her childhood idol growing up as a young, Black diver in Hillsborough, New Jersey.

“That was really a turning point for me, was meeting him and feeling that kind of inclusion in the sport that I loved to do,” Hayden, 26, said. “And it’s definitely noticeable because … I would typically be the only Black girl or guy on the pool deck, and not having a role model is hard because representation matters.

“As a young child, you always are looking up to wanting to be someone, and that’s what’s really pushed me to just want to be the model and be someone that a young Black male or female diver can look up to so that they do feel included, that they realize that this is a sport that they can do.”

Hayden is showing not only people of color that they can compete in diving at the highest level. As an Olympic hopeful who was diagnosed with two learning disorders and doesn’t have the “typical” diver’s body, she believes she’s competing on behalf of several underrepresented groups.

On Dec. 13, 2021, Hayden became the first Black female diver to win a national championship when she paired with her then Indiana teammate Quinn Henninger to earn the gold medal in the mixed synchronized 3-meter event.

At the time, Hayden, who previously dove for Michigan and then Minnesota, was unaware of the significance of her win until someone told her afterward. Less than three years later, she understands that she could make history this week at the 2024 U.S. Olympic Team Trials — Diving in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Hayden and former USC star Nike Agunbiade are each attempting to become the first Black diver to ever represent Team USA at an Olympic Games. They’ve competed together at a world cup competition, which Hayden described as an “amazing” and memorable experience.

Kristen Hayden competes in the women's 3-meter springboard preliminaries 2022 FINA World Championships on July 01, 2022 in Budapest, Hungary. (Photo by Getty Images)

“It’s something that you really just can’t take for granted at all. It’s just something that’s so surreal that growing up you don’t see anyone you look like, and now you’re on an international stage representing your country with someone that looks like you,” Hayden said.

“Those were moments that I’m 100 percent going to cherish forever, and I’m one of her biggest fans. I’m always rooting for her. I want the best for her, as I know she is rooting for me as well.”

When Hayden was a little kid, her parents had to keep an eye on her because she enjoyed climbing, walking along the top of the couch and jumping into the deep end of a pool before she even knew how to swim.

“I just wasn’t scared of the water at all,” Hayden said, laughing. “I just wanted to jump in.”

Hayden was initially more of a gymnast than a diver, though. Her mother signed her up for gymnastics after she turned her head for one moment during a mother-child reading class at a library and found Hayden walking on top of a table.

Hayden said she loved gymnastics and still does, but her mother pulled her out of the sport because a lot of the other girls were getting seriously injured at a young age. Hayden’s brother was a swimmer, and she started diving at 10 years old.

“I remember my first kind of lesson there, and they were teaching me how to do a hurdle,” Hayden said. “It was something new and exciting, and I always love a challenge.”

Good thing she does because things didn’t come easily for her.

Hayden was diagnosed with auditory processing disorder (APD) and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, more commonly known as ADHD. APD is a rare condition in which a person’s ears don’t coordinate with the brain, causing children with it to not understand what they’re hearing like other kids.

Hayden said she hears background noises at the same level as everything else as a result of having APD. As a teenager, she learned to sit at a certain spot in the front of the classroom to make sure she didn’t misinterpret or miss entirely parts of what the teacher was saying during class.

Hayden attended a school devoted to helping people with learning disorders. She went from getting Bs and Cs in class to graduating from Indiana last year as an honor student with a 3.9 grade-point average.

But she had to figure out how to deal with her APD when it came to diving.

Kristen Hayden competes in the women's 3-meter springboard final during the FINA Diving World Cup Berlin on Oct. 23, 2022 in Berlin. (Photo by Getty Images)

When Hayden is standing on the pool deck at a diving meet, she said she hears all the sounds around her, including other divers, the sprayers shooting water into the pool and the music being played inside the aquatic center. She relies on reading her coach’s lips when he says something to her about one of her dives.

“You get to learn the techniques and what you need to do in order to stay present, and that’s the biggest thing,” Hayden said. “It’s like, how can you stay the most present in every single moment and while at the most crucial moment when you’re competing?”

In addition to being a person of color, Hayden said she doesn’t look like other female divers who have smaller bodies that are considered ideal for the sport. At 5-foot-5, she has a more muscular physique with thicker shoulders and legs that she developed from competing in gymnastics.

“Muscles are beauty. Muscles are beautiful, and that’s one thing that I also represent that I like to see and be that for young divers, that it’s not a one-size-fit-all,” Hayden said. “You don’t have to be super petite. You don’t have to be super skinny to produce a beautiful dive. It comes in all shapes and forms. … This is why I feel like my purpose is to be that not-one-size-fit-all prototype, and I love to be that. I love being that person.”

Hayden said it would mean a lot if she qualified for the Paris Olympics, adding that it would be a “great step in the right direction of breaking stereotypes.” But she admitted she would never be in this position without support from her parents.

Her mother would drive two hours one way from their home in New Jersey to take Hayden to diving practice in Pennsylvania 3-4 times a week. Her parents also made it a point to attend all her meets during her freshman year at Michigan.

“Yeah, maybe there weren’t any Black people on deck, but there were two in the stands,” Hayden said. “I was never alone.”

Alex Abrams has written about Olympic and Paralympic sports for more than 15 years, including as a reporter for major newspapers in Florida, Arkansas and Oklahoma. He is a freelance contributor to on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.