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Kristen Hayden: Breaking the Color Barrier in Diving

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Kristen Hayden followed a path that few African Americans have. She could have been a gymnast or a swimmer but decided to pursue diving. According to Zippa, only 9.7% of black divers are in the United States. Nonetheless, Hayden took the burden of being a pioneer. 

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Her achievements are even more impressive when you consider that she has learning disabilities stemming from her diagnosis of central auditory processing disorder, which made it harder to learn. Find out more about Hayden below.

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How Kristen Got Into Diving

Kristen holding her NCAA Award. Source: Instagram 

Kristen was born on 2 March 1998 in Hillsborough, New Jersey. She did multiple sports: soccer, cross country, dancing, swimming and gymnastics, but settled for the last two. At the age of ten, a fellow parent suggested that she give diving a try because she could combine her swimming and gymnastics skills. She heeded the suggestion and started her career in the sport.

As a freshman at Lewis School, Kristen Hayden won the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) title. After her victory, she told nj.com that she expected a tough competition because she was up against seniors. This motivated her to work harder and remain focused. 

Unfortunately, diving wasn’t as popular in New Jersey, which made it difficult to find a club. Kristen and her parents traveled to West Chester Diving Club outside of Philadelphia thrice weekly to keep her practicing. 

Eventually, they relocated to North Carolina to support her ambitions of pursuing diving full-time. Hayden trained at the Duke Diving Club and won another title for Panther Creek High School.

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Moving Out of the Comfort Zone

A video of Kristen Hayden doing a diving routine. Source: Instagram

Having achieved all she could in high school, in 2016, Kristen Hayden took a new path. She joined the Rip Fest Diving in Indiana to prepare for summer competitions. 

It paid off as she came second at the AT&T National Championship, earning her a junior world championship qualification. There, Hayden finished second in the 1-meter dive and third in the 3-meter and platform dives. 

The Rip Fest Diving, she said, helped her to adjust to elite-level diving. After her performances, Hayden said she felt over-prepared and that her mindset changed to the point where competing felt natural.

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College Career

A video of Kristen Hayden doing a diving routine. Source: Instagram

Kristen Hayden first joined the University of Michigan and excelled. In her freshman year, she made it to three National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) competitions before transferring to the University of Minnesota in her sophomore year. 

However, her performances weren’t the best. Hayden failed to finish higher than seventh in the nationals between 2017 and 2019. 

Her focus shifted to the Tokyo Olympic qualification. However, her poor run of form continued as she failed to qualify after finishing fourth on the 3-meter and fifth in the 3-meter synchro. Nonetheless, Hayden viewed that as a success, having not taken part in the 2016 Olympic trials. 

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Rebuilding

Afterwards, she re-evaluated her performances and with her coach, decided to brush up on basic technical skills she lucked to be more graceful in her routines.

“I wasn’t doing the dives in the right way. I’ve been able to push through because I could muscle through. However, to compete against the very best, you don’t have an option but to make these changes.  

Hayden acknowledged that the process wasn’t easy but necessary. Her desire to compete at the highest level pushed her through this period, and the results are there to see. 

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Making History

Kristen Hayden with a competing partner at a press conference. Source: Instagram

In her final year, Kristen Hayden represented the Indiana University. She achieved the three goals she set for herself: 

  • Hayden broke the school’s record after scoring 399.38 points.
  • She won a silver medal at Big Tens on the 1-meter.
  • She also won an NCAA trophy, which she got after winning a silver medal in the 3-meter.

More success followed for Hayden. In 2021, during the Winter National Championships, she won the 3-meter synchro alongside her partner Quinn Henninger. This made her the first African-American to win a National Diving Championship and compete at a World Championship for America.

“That was a perfect moment. My family, friends, and teammates were at my home pool and watched this happen.”

As a pioneer in the sport, Hayden is a founding member of the USA Diving’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Council. Additionally, due to her difficulties in understanding spoken languages, she advocates for children with learning differences.

Kristen Hayden’s work in opening up the spaces for black divers is admirable. She should have chosen to stay in high school, where she was the top performer, but decided to challenge herself. This unlocked numerous opportunities and now inspires many budding divers to chase their dreams.  

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