This is an updated version of a story that was originally published in the April issue of ESPNHS magazine.
Just 18 dives separate Michael Hixon of Amherst Regional (Amherst, Mass.) from a spot in the 2012 Olympic Games in London.
It may be a long shot, but anything can happen in the 18 attempts he'll make off the three-meter springboard at June's Olympic trials in Federal Way, Wash. And it isn't as if Hixon is a no-name in the sport.
In addition to his seven junior national titles, he won a bronze medal at the 2010 Summer Youth Olympics and added gold to his collection at the 2011 Junior Pan Am Championships. He picked up his first senior-level crown at the 2011 AT&T National Diving Championships, qualifying for the trials along the way. A win there would propel him to London.
"It's hard to go to the Olympic trials and not be nervous," Hixon says. "But I'm going to go for it. I've got nothing to lose."
The junior comes from a family that knows its athletics. His father, Dave, is the men's basketball coach at Amherst College. His mother, Mandy, is the men's and women's diving coach at UMass-Amherst and serves as Michael's personal coach.
Diving is Hixon's passion now, but it wasn't his only sport until recently. He started diving seriously at age 13 but remained involved in various other sporting endeavors. He played just about everything and was particularly good at basketball, making varsity at Amherst Regional as a freshman.
"He was an outstanding point guard," says his father. "It's just one of those things where you can't really teach what he had. He had it in basketball, in football. He is just a great athlete."
But when Hixon found out varsity basketball practice would be five nights a week, he realized he needed to make a choice. For him, it was easy.
"I'm 5-foot-8," he says. "I'm not going to grow much. And besides, I really love diving. There's definitely more of a future there for me."
Hixon quickly got more serious about the sport. He started training more frequently and attending regional and national competitions. The result was total domination. He doubled as the junior national champ in the one-meter and three-meter events in 2008, '09 and '11. Still, his one-meter win at a senior competition -- the 2011 AT&T National Diving Championships -- was a bit of a surprise.
Hixon says the three-meter event was actually his focus at the competition.
"I went hard on the three-meter event," he says. "But I had a bad day, and I felt like I needed to vindicate myself. I had a solid prelim [in the one-meter], then I was second going into the finals, and I won it."
Since then, it's been all business in preparation for the trials. Under his mother's tutelage, Hixon trains up to six hours a day. He's technically very sound and fundamentals are his strength, but diving is a combination of technical skill and the ability to hit progressively more difficult dives. That comes with experience. Compared to other divers, he's just getting started; in fact, Hixon only recently started weight training.
"You're perpetually trying to improve [in relation to] the difficulty," Mandy says. "That takes increased strength, maturity, speed, quickness and things like that. In order to compete at a high international level, he's going to need to have those harder dives and he's going to need to do them very well."
"People talk about the 10,000-hour rule," Dave adds. "You have to do something for 10,000 hours to do it perfectly. He hasn't gotten there yet, but he's close. He's a perfectionist, and he's an unbelievable competitor."
That's one of the reasons the 2012 Olympics are in reach, even if he's not favored to advance past the trials. There are dozens of experienced divers who are all competing for the select few spots on the U.S. Olympic team.
In all, Hixon will dive 18 times, with the winner earning an automatic spot. One other spot will be awarded in a second competition at an Olympic selection camp. There, a diver needs to prove he can perform consistently in order to earn the second spot.
Hixon would need a nearly flawless performance to be anywhere near the top of the leaderboard at the trials. It's a major dream for the kid who wears a Team USA sweatshirt around the house every once in a while, but Hixon recognizes it's a long shot.
That doesn't mean he hasn't thought about it.
"One thing I'm still learning is patience," Hixon says. "You can't do it all in one day. I'm definitely trying to go in there as if it's [the other competitors'] event to lose. I'm going to go for it. Who knows, right?"
"We're going partially to get the experience," Mandy says. "But we've got to go for it. Why go to the trials if you're not thinking about making the Olympic team?"
Hixon says he's already thinking about his dives for the trials. Why wouldn't he? He's only 18 away from a trip to London.