In Rio, an unlikely correspondent covers an unlikely medalist

August 12, 2016

If you’re the sports editor of the Daily Hampshire Gazette in Northampton, Massachusetts, you didn’t exactly budget to cover the Olympics in Rio.

After all, Mike Moran notes, the last Hampshire County native to go to the Olympics and win a medal was a field hockey player in 1984.

But Michael Hixon, who’s a local kid from nearby Amherst, made the team as a longshot synchronized diver. For sure, his chances were minimal, especially since he and Samuel Dorman were paired not long ago in a precision-filled event where duos are often together for years. In fact, they’d only been together in a single previous major competition — the spring U.S. Olympic trials in Indianapolis.

But Moran had reached out for freelancing help during two major track competitions in Oregon in which a Northampton sprinter competed. Then, University of Oregon journalism students helped out. This time he had greater trouble finding somebody for Rio and wound up posting a request on the website of the sports editors association.

At another editor’s suggestion he contacted Kevin Robbins, a journalism professor at The University of Texas at Austin who was going to Rio with several students. They’d do work for a few papers who didn’t have their own staff there. He said he could help Moran.

Cat Cardenas, who will be a junior, was assigned to follow Hixon, whose father is the longtime basketball coach at Amherst College (a Division III power); his mother is the diving coach at the nearby University of Massachusetts.

She’d just finished her tenure as managing editor at The Daily Texan, the university daily, but was not especially versed in sports, having worked mostly in the paper’s Arts and Life section.

“It’s been insane,” she said in a phone chat from Rio, discussing the first week of work at the Summer Games. She’s done stories for the Dayton, Ohio Daily News and The San Antonio Express-News.

But nothing so far has matched the Hixon saga — one that’s received scant attention, even as NBC tends to offer an American-centric take on the Olympics, especially in primetime.

Hixon is an Indiana University student who transferred from the University of Texas. Due to scheduling conflicts in high school, he had to choose between diving and basketball. He’s tough and close to fearless, a good friend of the family told me Thursday.

But, despite an illustrious diving career so far, his pairing with Miami’s Dorman did not seem an auspicious one. The U.S., after all, had never won a medal in the three-meter diving competition in the Olympics. Hixon, 22, and Dorman, 24, were each NCAA champions but this all seemed a bridge too far.

While there were only eight nations in all, the Chinese were the heavy favorites and the U.S. ranked near the bottom. And, after two mediocre initial rounds, they weren’t even close.

But they turned things around dramatically, in part helped (in their minds) by rain at the outdoor diving center. Dorman often trains in gusty conditions. In Rio there was rain, wind and even green water as a result of the pool’s chemical treatment system going awry.

“Anyone who was willing to go out there and dive their best in the rain and not let it bother them had an advantage,” Hixon told Cardenas.

The duo then made several clutch dives, most notably one called the 109C, which involves four and a half somersaults with a so-called front tuck. They saved that one, which carried a high degree of difficulty, for last and pulled off the day’s highest-scoring dive and the highest of any of the 48 combined dives by all the teams.

After inching up behind Great Britain and Russia, they had secured second place behind Great Britain and ahead of China. It was the highest finish ever for a U.S pair in the event.

It didn’t get much media attention at all, with the primary highlights on NBC’s late-night coverage with Ryan Seacrest, not prime tie with Costas. But there was not much bigger story for the Gazette.

The event ended in late afternoon and, without a ton of time, Cardenas knocked out a very solid, engaging effort, which reflected a good eye and ample preparation. She got it in well under deadline, with Robbins serving as initial editor.

“She did a bang-up job,” says Moran. If you were looking for stories on the improbable feat, you didn’t have much beyond her effort and one in The Indianapolis Star.

Looking back on that story, and her first week, Cardenas said, “We hit the ground running as soon as the Opening Ceremonies. And I am having a great time covering these sports I knew nothing about a month ago.”