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By Debbie Anderson September 8, 2021 November 5th, 2021 No Comments

Springboard to Success

By June Naylor
Photos by Ron Jenkins

Snorkeling with manta rays, a shoutout from Pitbull and, oh, yeah, that turn at the Olympics. Hailey Hernandez is having a good year.

We would say that Hailey Hernandez has made a big splash this year, but that would sound like an insult to a competitive diver. And, clearly, things are going swimmingly for the petite athlete with the long blond tresses. Two weeks and some change after graduating from Carroll High School, she snagged a spot on the U.S. diving team, nailing her performance at the Olympic Trials in Indianapolis. The youngest American diver competing in Tokyo, the 18-year-old’s ability to stay grounded while on the world stage — without her family present due to COVID restrictions — speaks to a maturity well beyond her years. She advanced to the medal round in the 3-meter springboard finals and finished ninth in the Games — a feat more meaningful given that she’d had no major competition experience in a year-plus (again, thanks to the pandemic) and had battled some serious performance blocks. A warrior at heart, the four-time state champion diver faced down her fears, thanks to solid coaching and her innate focus and perseverance — plus a little inspiration from rapper Pitbull. After the Olympics, she was home long enough to pose for photos with fans at a Feedstore BBQ get-together in Southlake. We caught up with her poolside at her family’s home, before she departed for Austin, where she’s now a freshman member of the Longhorn diving team at the University of Texas.

Excited for the future, Hernandez is well-grounded for someone who spends so much time in the air.

092 You’ve been diving since you were a little girl. How did that begin?

Hailey Hernandez My brother Nathaniel, who dove for Duke University, got me into diving when I was 7. We lived in Keller before we moved to Southlake, where my mom is a teacher. We always trained at the Keller ISD natatorium; I’ve trained there ever since — almost my whole career, nine years now — with coach Jeff Bro; he got to go with me to Tokyo.

092 You qualified for the Olympics in June, right after finishing high school. How did you get ready for Tokyo? Did it seem real?

HH Between the trials in Indianapolis and leaving for the Olympics, it was a little over a month. I had a regular training schedule, practicing twice a day, both with time in the water and dryland weight conditioning. It definitely took time to soak in. It didn’t feel real until we got to Tokyo and the opening ceremony was happening.

092 Besides your coach, did you know anyone? Was there a bonding experience with the other divers, since your families couldn’t be with you?

HH I actually knew all the coaches and divers; the diving community is small, and I’d been traveling with them for a number of years to national and international competitions. And, in the environment there, we had to make it feel as normal as possible, so we made our cheering for each other as loud as we could. All that we had was us supporting us, so that bonded us more.

092 Of the memories gathered at the Olympics, is there one that is the most indelible?

HH The opening ceremony — though it was quite different than if there’d been spectators — was such an unforgettable experience. To go into that big stadium with the whole Team USA, to be a part of something so much bigger than yourself, to represent your country — that was really special.

092 When you shared a photo on your Instagram feed of yourself and teammates at the opening ceremony, a comment posted by Pitbull stood out. He said, “It’s an honor to motivate you. You’re working hard to live out your dreams and represent our country with so much grace and pride.” How did that happen?

HH Over the past year and a half, I’d been struggling with mental blocks on some of my dives. My coach plays music while we dive, and a Pitbull song came on [“Give Me Everything”], and I started listening to it. I’ve always loved his music. Then I went to do a dive I’d had trouble with — a front three-and-a-half — and I did it. That was in April and the trials were in June. So, whenever I’d hear that song, it reminded me to keep working and pushing through. I mentioned this in an interview, and it kind of blew up on social media. When he commented on my opening ceremony post, that was unbelievable!

092 Now that you’ve worked through struggles and experienced an important breakthrough, what can you tell another athlete who’s facing that kind of difficulty?

HH Just stick with it, keep pushing. There will always be obstacles and challenges, but that’s how we grow as athletes, that’s how we get better.

Photos courtesy of Hailey Hernandez

HH It was sad going out of the finals at the Olympics, knowing that’s the last time he’ll coach me after so many years. But I’m looking forward to working toward new goals, excited about working with my new coach at Texas. Change is good.

092 Decompressing after the Olympics, what did you do to celebrate?

HH My family and I went to Hawaii, to the Big Island, for a week. We drove all over; I love that island. The best thing was a nighttime snorkel with manta rays. That was fabulous.

092 And now, on to Austin. Were there other schools in contention, and how did you choose UT?

HH It was a tough decision; I had good options. Purdue and Duke were the other serious choices. But I fell in love with the Longhorn team; it’s top tier in the U.S., and it’s somewhat close to home. And the entire student body has such pride in the school. Coming from a place like Southlake, that’s really important to me.

092 What’s your area of study?

HH I’m majoring in biology. For graduate school, I’ll study to be a physician’s assistant.

092 What’s your goal for this school year?

HH As a diver, I want to get stronger and learn some harder dives, the ones that have challenged me like the inward two-and-a-half pike and the back two-and-half pike. I need to work on transitioning from the tuck to pike position. And I hope to medal at the NCAAs.

092 So when you’re not diving, not lifting weights, not in school — what are you usually doing?

HH I love watching movies, especially a rom-com. The Proposal is my favorite. But I also like the Mission: Impossible movies, or anything with Tom Cruise. And I love spending time outdoors. Maybe at the pool. I just can’t stay away from water.