Swimming

Nike Agunbiade makes history for USC diving

The sophomore became the first Black diver in USC history to win a Pac-12 title this season.

After a standout freshman season in which she earned Pac-12 Diving Freshman of the Year honors, sophomore diver Nike Agunbiade was ready to compete in the 2020 NCAA Diving Championships.

Then, COVID hit. The meet was canceled and Nike was left unsatisfied, not able to showcase her talents beyond the Pac-12. Maybe it was a gift to her competitors, because Agunbiade — who only started diving competitively in high school — was just scratching the surface of her abilities.

“I had a new coach and was moving away from home,” Agunbiade said. “I just wanted to focus on getting used to [head coach Hongping Li’s] coaching style, getting used to the team and the environment. And I didn’t really want to focus on end results. I wanted to focus on the little details.”

So like a true athlete, Agunbiade dedicated herself to the platform. Despite the uncertainty regarding a 2021 season, she was determined to come back stronger, more skilled than before. And when the NCAA and Pac-12 confirmed an official 2021 season, Agunbiade was dialed in.

“I was just grateful that we were able to get the chance to train,” Agunbiade said. “And so, again, I wasn’t really trying to focus on, ‘I need to do well because I did well last year.’ It was more like, ‘How can I finish and be proud of what I’ve achieved no matter what spot I ended up in, and be proud of the training that I did to get to [the] Pac-12 [Championship].”

But by taking a similar mindset into this year — focusing on the minute details rather than the end results — Agunbiade shined in competition.

She posted a 374.65 to win the event by almost 40 points, becoming the first Black diver in USC history to win a Pac-12 title. Winning was definitely the cherry on top for Agunbiade, but being the first Black diver to do so added more value to the title.

“Knowing that I am the first African American in USC diving history to win means a lot to me,” Agunbiade said. “I’m glad it happened, I wish it had happened earlier, but I hope that I can be someone that younger people can look up to and see that they can also go to a very high level of competition and do well.”

Junior diving captain Alyson Tam echoed Agunbiade’s wish for more diversity in the sport in future generations.

“As a person of color as well, I think we need more representation,” Tam said. “And I think for her to win a Pac-12 title is really going to inspire the next generation and really motivate them to work harder and to get to where she is.”

In its 2020 Demographic Research, the NCAA recorded that there were only 64 Black swimmers and divers among 5,755 total athletes.

But Agunbiade is already inspiring her current teammates. Tam said watching her in the weight room and in practice is “motivating” and “makes her want to work even harder.”

Given her efforts, this feat does not come as a surprise for those close to Agunbiade.

Li, the head diving coach for USC, said though many people did not know of Agunbiade before her freshman year due to her late entry into the sport, he recognized her abilities. In practice and in contests, he holds high standards for Agunbiade.

“[Agunbiade] is always ready to meet my high expectations,” Li said. “I know she can be an A-level diver; I will not let her settle for B. She definitely is willing to put in the extra effort to make it happen.”

Her “eye-opening, impressive” championship performance, in Li’s words, is partly due to their unique relationship. Li’s high standards paired with Agunbiade’s dedication to improvement paved the way for her championship season.

Especially with a COVID-19 abbreviated season and fewer practices, the “quality of diving in each training session” must be steady.

“We always believed that she was really athletic and always knew she is very gifted but inconsistent,” Li said. " She’s becoming more successful this year particularly because of her consistency. She was able to be level-headed and even more steady with her performance.”

Agunbiade’s consistency will be put to the ultimate test this June in the U.S. Olympic Diving Qualifying Trials. The trials will differ from college competition due to international diving rules, so Agunbiade is ready to be a student and soak up any tips she can from other divers.

“Just being able to go is a great honor,” Agunbiade said. “Looking at myself four years ago, I would have never thought that I would qualify for trials. I’m just going for the experience and just want to learn from other competitors there, how they compete, how to do well.”

But Li knows Agunbiade can make something special happen. If she is able to put it all together on the national stage, Li said he believes she could make it to the finals.

No matter how she performs in the U.S. Trials, Agunbiade has high expectations for herself in her junior and senior years at USC.

“I definitely hope to go and get some more titles,” Agunbiade said. “At this Pac-12s, I got a personal best on the three-meter and really close to the pool record. Getting a pool record would be amazing.”

But at the end of the day, her supreme goal is just to “not plateau” and continue to evolve with the sport.