In the history of the U.S. national diving championships, only one Black diver had ever won a senior title: Michael Wright, who won the men’s 1-meter springboard at the USA Diving Winter National Championships in 2010.
That was, at least, until last month. On Dec. 13, Kristen Hayden, a former diver at the University of Minnesota, became the first-ever Black female diver to win a U.S. national senior diving title, winning the mixed synchronized 3-meter springboard at the 2021 USA Diving Winter National Championships.
“You can’t put it into words,” said Hayden, who is now a graduate student at Indiana University. “It’s amazing. It’s history. It’s what’s going to help change the diving community for the better (and) bring in more diversity … I feel like that’s really why we’re put on this earth, to make a difference.”
‘We need to have more diversity’
Hayden, a native of Hillsborough, N.J., began diving at the age of 10, after a teammate’s parent suggested to her mom that diving combined the two sports Hayden was already competing in, gymnastics and swimming.
Although Hayden was soon serious about training, her transition to the sport was not easy.
“It was extremely difficult, actually,” Hayden said. “You would think that (gymnastics and diving) are very similar, but diving has a lot more rhythm and tempo. I still to this day struggle with certain aspects of diving because I like to rely on power like gymnastics.”
Throughout her career, Hayden has spent time at various diving programs. In high school, she moved to North Carolina her sophomore year to train at Duke Diving Club. During her senior year, she moved to Indiana to train at RipFest Diving Club.
As with her high school years, Hayden also spent time at several different programs in college. She first enrolled at the University of Michigan before transferring to Minnesota, mostly to work with Gopher diving coach Wenbo Chen.
Wenbo, who oversees both the men’s and women’s programs at Minnesota, has been named the Big Ten Women’s Diving Coach of the Year eight times, and Hayden said her time at Minnesota was critical for her development, in that it helped her add certain fundamentals into her diving arsenal.
“(Wenbo) really helped my diving technically,” Hayden said. “Just the tiny aspects he talks about, whether it’s on the board, what you do underwater, or how high you need to point your toes coming off the board, and all of the rhythm … I learned a lot from him and all of his successes with coaching.”
But after two seasons at Minnesota, Hayden decided to step away from collegiate diving to prepare to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics before enrolling at Indiana for the 2021-22 season.
Along the way, Hayden also became a founding member of USA Diving’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Council.
“Our goal is to bring diversity into USA Diving because, unfortunately, it lacks diversity,” Hayden said. “I always hear people say, ‘Oh yeah, I’ve watched diving in the Olympics, and then I just don’t see it for another four years.’”
As she works with the council, Hayden wants to bring more exposure to diving and strengthen its diversity as a whole. “We need to have pools in more diverse settings,” Hayden said. “We need to have more diversity, whether that’s in divers, coaches, judges, and diversity within the whole aspect of USA Diving. Then, we will have the turnout that we’ve all been wanting.”
Preparing for the world championships
In the runup to the 2021 USA Winter National Championships in December, Hayden’s coach, Indiana head diving coach Drew Johansen, strategized the best ways to maximize his team’s success in the hopes of having some of his divers qualify for the world championships team. One of those strategies was to have the team’s divers practice synchronized diving, since it often helps improve timing and tempo, and Hayden was paired with her Hoosiers teammate, freshman Quinn Henninger.
“When Kristen and Quinn got together, it was a pretty natural fit right away” Johansen said. “Once we saw that it was a natural fit, we said, ‘Let’s put a team together.’”
Natural fit or not, the national championships was the first time the pair had ever competed in a meet together. Nevertheless, by the time it was over, duo had scored an event-high 286.86 points, three points clear of their Indiana teammates, Anne Fowler and Carson Tyler.
Hayden and Henninger now have their eyes set on the 2022 FINA World Aquatics Championships, which will take place in May in Japan.
Johansen said that the duo is practicing dives that are on par with what medalists usually produce at the world level, while also working on something that could separate them from their competition: a dive in which a diver completes a forward two and a half somersault two twist pike.
“I think only two or three girls in the world are doing that dive right now,” Johansen said. “We think by May, Kristen might be able to get a handle on that dive.”
The championships will mark Hayden’s first time competing in a senior world diving event, as she previously competed in the junior worlds in 2016.
“I look forward to her winning more,” Johansen said. “She’s just come onto the scene … but I do see in her future more titles that she can get after, which will be a lot of fun. Then with the Olympic Games drawing near in Paris in 2024, if we can keep her on track, we might have a few more firsts happening in years to come.”