ASU diver Heikki Makikallio reflects on rollercoaster career

The Finnish senior experienced success and mental struggles on the diving board

ASU senior diver Heikki Makikallio's career has been a rollercoaster on the diving board.

The senior is from Oulu, Finland, a place that only receives a few hours of daylight during the winter season. Because there are no college sports in Finland, Makikallio came to ASU with a scholarship to dive.

While growing up in Oulu, Makikallio racked up diving championships and accolades from across the globe. Before even stepping foot in Tempe, he was an 18-time Finnish national champion and a Nordic champion in Finland, Sweden, Norway and Denmark.

“Starting at an age where he developed a lot of skills, he had a talent level, and one of the hard parts of our sport is when you physically get to the point that's only half the battle,” ASU head dive coach Mark Bradshaw said. “It becomes your confidence level mentally how you think you are going to do and that explains a little bit of the up and down through his career.”

But when Makikallio got to Tempe, he began a turbulent career. He showed flashes of talent on the diving board, but also struggled with anxiety when he'd dive, which he said kept him from reaching his full potential.

"I went through everything from the lowest lows to the highest highs," Makikallio said. "I did that but without ever reaching the crown.”

Makikallio experienced an adjustment period when he was getting used to the fresh facilities at ASU and the training regiment of Bradshaw. 

“In Tempe, the springboards are always the newest kind on the market, and our coach Mark takes very good care of them, so that is a huge difference from what I was used to in Oulu,” Makikallio said. “Weight training is on a whole new level here as it is very consistent and goal-oriented as back at home, we did way less of it. And rehabilitation and a training room is something we don't have, at all back home.”

Despite winning the 1-meter and 3-meter springboard events in his first collegiate meet as a freshman, Makikallio failed to qualify for NCAAs. 

“My first year here, I came and I kind of struggled a lot to get used to everything how they train here very differently and what I was used to,” Makikallio said. “Pac-12s didn’t go very well.”

Makikallio's career peak as a Sun Devil would follow in the next two seasons. He qualified for NCAAs as a sophomore and a junior. As a junior he was named on the Pac-12 First Team All-Academic Team and placed first in the platform dive at the Zone E Championships. However, that year, he finished 17th at NCAAs in the 10-meter platform, one spot away from achieving All-American status.

Devastated at the outcome, Makikallio was determined to qualify for NCAAs and achieve All-American status heading into his final season. 

But Makkallio's final year was bogged down by mental blocks during competitions. When he was on the diving board, Makikallio said he would get noticeably anxious to the point where his coaches needed to talk him through technique before he would dive.  

“I started getting mental problems in my dives, I couldn’t perform properly anymore because I was so scared of my dives, and that started happening before Pac-12s,” Makikallio said. “I couldn’t see what I was doing before I did it, so I just had to jump and hope my body did the right thing.”

Bradshaw discussed the challenges of coaching through an athlete experiencing issues from within.

“It’s a huge challenge. It’s something that ...  it's so encapsulated within the individual. You can talk to them all you want about the right way, the feedback about helping him through this, but really it’s up to the individual,” Bradshaw said. “When you are diving up there, it can get quite scary, so from my standpoint, it was just reassuring him everything is going to be OK, doing a lot of progressions. He’s not the only one that’s ever happened too.” 

Makikallio said the anxiety was localized to diving competitions, and as a competitor in the sport since youth, he still isn't sure what caused the mental blocks. 

After finishing out his 13-year diving career, Makikallio's time as a Sun Devil will end when he graduates with a degree in finance from the W.P Carey School of Business next December. 

Despite an imperfect senior season, beyond competing, Makikallio still remained positive at practice, serving as a point of inspiration for his teammates.

“Heikki is a one of the best teammates I have ever practiced with, he is always positive and he is always helping us in practice if we are have a hard time with something," sophomore diver Youssef Selim said. “He motivates me in practice every day.” 


Reach the reporter at nsheehy@asu.edu or follow @nsheehy_nick on Twitter.

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