FEDERAL WAY, Wash. – Mauricio Robles couldn’t speak English. Yet the kid from Monterrey, Mexico, a town about 145 miles from McAllen, Texas, heard he might be good enough to get a diving scholarship. So Robles, all of 17 years old at the time, took it upon himself to learn the language so he could go to an American college.

Now he’s a freshman star at the University of Tennessee with his sights on a national championship as the NCAA Division I Men’s Swimming and Diving Championships that take place here at the Weyhaeuser King County Aquatic Center get under way Thursday.

DIVISION I MEN'S
SWIMMING AND DIVING CHAMPIONSHIPS

If the experts are right, either Texas, Cal, Arizona and Stanford will be crowned national champions, but the Longhorns' Eddie Reese says not so fast, and this year's meet will be an original.

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All he’s done his year in America is win the 10-meter platform at the Southeastern Conference Championships, finish third in three-meter and sixth on one-meter. And then he won the NCAA Zone B titles in platform and three-meter and finished fifth in one-meter.

And as if that’s not impressive enough, he had a 3.8 grade-point average first semester. He laughed kind of sheepishly when he said it. “I did pretty good,” Robles admitted.

“He’s fantastic. A quietly spoken young guy,” Tennessee diving coach Dave Parrington said. “Works his butt off and has done really well in school. You know, once I found out how well he could dive, the next thing I had to find out how well did he speak English. In January last year, he really didn’t speak English.”

Actually, Robles said he knew some words.

“Dog, sky, simple stuff,” he said with a smile, confirming why one of his teammates said he’s a pretty funny guy.

Robles is one of 35 divers participating in this meet. The Vols also have senior teammate Ryan Helms of Moultrie, Ga., and junior Brent Sterling of Knoxville.

“He’s a great teammate,” said Helms, himself the SEC champion in one- and three-meters, the SEC Diver of the Year and the SEC Scholar Athlete of the Year. “He came from a great program down in Mexico and he works hard in everything he does. I guess that made the transition to the United States a little easier. He works hard in school and diving.”

Robles, who stands 5-foot-8 and weighs 152 pounds, talks softly and carefully.

“A person said I could get a scholarship and study in America,” he said. “I started to look for universities and I saw Tennessee and I liked it. So I started to learn English like nine months ago. I started to learn English every day, for four hours a day.”

He took classes from a tutor after school.

“I had to take the SAT and a TOEFL [English as a second language] test and the SAT was pretty good. I don’t remember what I got -– I’m pretty good in math -– but the TOEFL was hard. I had to take it twice, because the first time I didn’t get the score. Then finally I got the score [last July].”

So he was off to Tennessee. Which begs the question: How did Parrington find him?

“I was kind of lucky,” he said with a smile. “An old friend of mine from when I was coach at the University of Houston, which is going back 22, 23 years, lives in Monterrey. Out of the blue I got an email from him actually asking about his daughter, who was a junior swimmer in high school at the time and he wanted some advice about starting the recruiting process.”

But what Manuel Ferrara included in that email was that his daughter had a friend who was a pretty good diver. So Parrington checked out some of Robles’ scores and some video “and found out he was a pretty good diver and I took it from there.”

I started to look for universities and I saw Tennessee and I liked it. So I started to learn English like nine months ago. I started to learn English every day, for four hours a day.
-- Tennessee diver Mauricio Robles

What really helped was right after that Robles competed very well in an international club meet in Canada and confirmed what Parrington was thinking, that he had to get him.

“He told me he wanted me,” Robles said. “I started my English and tests then. It was pretty hard. I’m still working on it, but if you’re here you have to learn English. It’s mostly easy.”

The hardest part, he said, “is listening.”

He must listen well, especially in class, considering he was one grade off a perfect semester.

“That’s phenomenal and that’s a credit to his work ethic,” Parrington said. “And that’s how he is in the pool, too, he busts his butt. Our swim coach, Lars [Jorgensen], back in the early spring was teasing him, saying Ryan and Brent are working harder than you. He says, ‘Nobody works harder than me.’ And that’s how is.

“The team really embraced him and he’s easy to like. He’s really an asset to the program, the guys really like him and I’m looking forward to another three years with him.”

Robles turns 18 in May. They Skype every day, but he hasn’t been back home to see his parents, younger sister or older brother since leaving for UT last August. He’ll be going back to visit once this semester ends.

“Knoxville is quiet,” admitting he misses the food from back home. “Monterrey, my city, is one of the largest cities in Mexico. It is very crowded. Knoxville, I like it.”

Robles knows he has a good chance to make, pardon the pun, a splash here. The one-meter event is Thursday, the three-meter diving Friday and the platform Saturday.

“Based on what he’s done, he won SEC on platform, won our zone meet on platform, done very well on three-meter, was solid on one-meter, he has a chance but this is going to be a whole new experience for him here on this level,” Parrington said. “There are some divers much more seasoned and who have done well internationally and that type of thing who will be tough to beat. But on platform diving, anything can happen on any given day.”

Parrington, by the way, is a story in himself. He’s from what was then Rhodesia and is now Zimbabwe, where he was serving in the police force. He got a diving scholarship to the University of Houston, competed for Zimbabwe in the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, and then became the diving coach at Houston after his career ended. He took the job at Tennessee in 1990.

“My goal for [Robles] would be for him to make the finals in platform and three-meter and if he can score in one-meter, maybe nine through 16 or something like that, I’ll be really happy,” Parrington said. “Once you get in the final, of course, anything can happen. Anything on top of that would be gravy.”