Mark of a Diver

Michelle Mitchell,
Director of Operations for the University of Arizona’s swimming and diving teams, recently was named Pac-12 Diver of the Century. Photo by James Patrick.

Mark of a Diver

Diver extraordinaire Michelle Mitchell, who has been named Pac-12 Diver of the Century, says her most prized achievement is raising two children as a single mother.
Mitchell, who is director of operations for the UA swimming and diving teams and a former UA men’s diving coach, names her second prized achievement as earning a doctorate in education psychology. She earned it at the same time she was dealing with a divorce, the death of family members, working two jobs and raising two children.
Surprised that they have nothing to do with diving?
In fact, they have everything to do with Mitchell’s career in the sport. Her experience in athletics continues to give her strength to get through challenging times.
“Not every day is a good day,” she says, “so you have to put your head down and get through it. Being an athlete helps to do that.”
As an athlete, Mitchell developed her “Three S” rule that she instilled in her daughter, who is currently at West Point, and her son, who is a student at Northern Arizona University: Suit up, show up and shut up. “Often in life that’s what you have to do,” she says.
It’s a motto she’s followed all of her life, from her days as a former gymnast who learned how to dive competitively at a Scottsdale high school, through her stellar diving career at UA, and her world-class diving achievements that earned her induction in five Halls of Fame.
She is the most-decorated diver at the university. She holds the American record for the eight-dive list in platform diving and has two Olympic silver medals. Her latest accolade as Pac-12 Diver of the Century was determined by a panel of coaches, swimmers, administrators and media members.
Her Three S’s also helped her achieve out of the water, too. As a UA coach she guided divers to titles that have included the first NCAA diving champion from the university, three Olympians and 27 All-Americans. She coached UA teams to 11 Pac-12 titles and two national titles.
She also owns, and is head coach of, the Tucson Diving Team for youngsters.
Mitchell has influenced collegiate, national and international diving competition standards and rules as a judge, administrator and elected official, including her current post as chair of USA Diving’s board of directors.
In all her work, Mitchell says her primary focus has been on shaping the lives of kids and young adults. “Being a coach and working with young people is very satisfying,” she says. “Diving is just a conduit to reach them and help them grow and mature as a person.”
Benjamin Grado is the perfect illustration. When he arrived as a freshman at UA in 2008, he had all of one season of competitive diving experience after a few years as a gymnast. Under Mitchell’s coaching, he became the university’s first NCAA diving champion. He was an All-American and graduated as the Pac-12 Diver of the Year.
“If you dive from your heart, you’ll rise,” she comments about his success. “You don’t have to be the world’s most talented athlete. If you stay in the moment you can achieve great things.”
That “aha” moment occurred for Mitchell when she competed at the 1985 world diving championships. It was six months after Mitchell won her first Olympic silver medal in 10-meter platform diving, placing second only to Zhou Jihong from the diving powerhouse country of China. The World FINA Cup competition was in Shanghai and the crowd obviously cheered for its favorite daughter.
The last dives were going to determine who won, Mitchell says. She followed Zhou in that last round and as she went to the platform to dive, there was loud whistling from the crowd.
“I didn’t quite understand what was going on,” she says. “Then it dawned on me that they were trying to distract me.”
She got mad, she recalls, and became laser-focused. She executed an inward 3-1/2 somersault tuck, the only woman doing that dive at the time. “It was a real gamble,” Mitchell recalls.
It must have looked gorgeous. “When I came up (from the dive), it was radio silence,” she says.
Mitchell won that meet; Zhou came in third. “I ended up defeating her in her home pool and her own country,” Mitchell says. “I learned a lot about myself, about rising to the moment.”
Today Mitchell wants to use her influence as the USA Diving board chair to create a legacy in the sport. She wants to establish a regular funding source and create ways to run events more efficiently. And she’ll use her own lessons in athletics to do it.
“I don’t have all the answers, but I’m going to get stuff done. Oftentimes that’s what it takes to get things to move along.
“It’s like going to practice every day as an athlete. You get through the muck, make corrections. You just got to get it done.”  — Elena Acoba