A Former Minnesota Gopher Becomes First Black Woman To Win A National Diving Title

In the history of the US 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 2010 US Diving Winter National Championships.

University of Indiana

Kristen Hayden

At least that was until last month. On December 13, Kristen Hayden, a former diver at the University of Minnesota, became the first black female diver ever to win a U.S. national senior diving title, winning the 3-meter mixed synchronized springboard at the 2021 USA Diving Winter National Championships.

“You can’t put it into words,” says Hayden, who is now a graduate student at Indiana University. “It’s great. It’s history. It’s what will help change the diving community for the better (and) bring more diversity…I feel like that’s really why we were put on this earth, to have a make a difference.”

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‘We need to have more diversity’

Born in Hillsborough, NJ, Hayden started diving at age 10 after a teammate’s parent suggested to her mother that diving combined the two sports Hayden was already doing, gymnastics and swimming.

Although Hayden soon became serious about training, her transition to the sport was not an easy one.

“It was actually extremely difficult,” Hayden said. “You would think that (gymnastics and diving) are very similar, but diving has much more rhythm and pace. To this day I still struggle with certain aspects of diving because I like to rely on strength, such as gymnastics.”

Throughout her career, Hayden has spent time on various dive programs. In high school, she moved to North Carolina in her sophomore year to train at Duke Diving Club. During her senior year, she moved to Indiana to train at RipFest Diving Club.

As during her high school days, Hayden also spent time on various programs in college. She first enrolled at the University of Michigan before moving to Minnesota, mostly to work with Gopher diving coach Wenbo Chen.

Kristen Hayden

University of Minnesota

Kristen Hayden spent two seasons with Minnesota.

Wenbo, who oversees both the men’s and women’s programs in Minnesota, has been named Big Ten Women’s Diving Coach of the Year eight times, and Hayden said her time in Minnesota was critical to her development, as it helped her adding certain fundamentals to her diving arsenal.

“(Wenbo) really helped my diving technically,” said Hayden. “Just the little aspects that he talks about, whether it’s on the board, what you’re doing underwater, or how high you have to point your toes when you come off the board, and all the rhythm… I got a lot from him and all his successes with coaching.”

But after two seasons in Minnesota, Hayden decided to forgo collegiate diving to prepare for qualifying for the Tokyo Olympics before enrolling in 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 to USA Diving because, unfortunately, diversity is lacking,” said Hayden. “I always hear people say, ‘Oh yeah, I’ve seen diving in the Olympics, and then I just don’t see it for another four years.'”

While working with the community, Hayden aims to raise awareness about diving and enhance diversity as a whole. “We need pools in more diverse environments,” Hayden said. “We need to have more diversity, whether that’s in divers, coaches, judges, and diversity across the whole aspect of USA Diving. Then we’ll have the turnout we’ve all longed for.”

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Preparing for the World Championships

Leading up to the 2021 USA Winter National Championships in December, Hayden’s coach, Indiana Head Dive Coach Drew Johansen, figured out the best ways to maximize his team’s success in hopes of some of his divers qualifying for the world championship team. One such strategy was to have the team’s divers practice synchronized diving, as it often helps improve timing and pace, and Hayden was paired up with her Hoosiers teammate, freshman Quinn Henninger.

“When Kristen and Quinn got together, it was an instant natural match,” Johansen said. “When we saw it was a natural fit, we said, ‘Let’s put together a team.'”

Natural or not, the National Championships marked the first time the pair had ever competed together. Nevertheless, by the time it was over, the duo had scored an event-high 286.86 points, three points ahead of their Indiana teammates Anne Fowler and Carson Tyler.

Hayden and Henninger now have their eyes on the 2022 FINA World Aquatics Championships, which will take place in Japan in May.

Johansen said the duo are practicing dives similar to what medalists usually produce at the global level, while also working on something that could set them apart from their competition: a dive in which a diver does a forward two-and-a-half somersault two-turn pike.

“I think only two or three girls in the world are doing that plunge right now,” Johansen said. “We think Kristen may be able to get that dive under control by May.”

The Championships will be Hayden’s first time competing in a senior world diving event as she competed in the junior worlds earlier in 2016.

“I’m looking forward to her winning more,” Johansen said. “She just came on the scene… but I see more titles in her future that she can get, which will be a lot of fun. As the 2024 Olympics in Paris approach, and if we can keep it on track, there may well be a few more firsts in the coming years.”

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