During her first recruiting visit in 2019, first-year diver Aranza Vázquez Montaño stood on the pool deck of Koury Natatorium, looking out at the record board that displayed the triumphs and conquests of Tar Heel divers past.
“Maybe I’ll be there one day,” she said as she took in the legendary names before her: Elissa Dawson, Michole Timm, Emily Grund.
For any recruit or prospect looking at a school, this is normal. Every athlete wants a shot at making history, at leaving their name in the record books for the world to see. Vázquez was no different, having dreamed of coming to the United States for college since she was a little girl in La Paz, Baja California Sur, Mexico. Standing on the pool deck, she was on the precipice of fulfilling that dream.
But Vázquez would prove quickly that she wasn’t just any diving recruit. Not even close.
In just one semester as a Tar Heel, Vázquez has shattered expectations, breaking and re-breaking the school records for the 1-meter and 3-meter diving events and winning consecutive ACC Women's Diver of the Week awards. Not that it changes much, but she also has the third highest platform diving score in school history.
If she keeps it up, she's on pace to become UNC’s best female diver of all time.
But what’s more is she made it. She arrived in the United States, a place that can be jarring and daunting for any immigrant, and made her presence known and felt. In the face of language barriers and cultural divides, she became a valuable and ludicrously successful member of her new team. And they love her for it.
‘It’s best for me to be here’
That love and success wasn’t guaranteed, though.
Sure, Vázquez could prove herself on the platform or the springboard, but first, she had to prove herself as a person. For someone whose native language isn’t English and who has never lived in the United States, that can be hard. Head diving coach Yaidel Gamboa, who recruited Vázquez to UNC, admitted that even he was a little bit worried.
“Coming from a different country, a different culture, a different language, it’s so many variables,” Gamboa said. “I really wasn’t sure how she was going to respond to all that.”
Going to college in the United States wasn’t the only dramatic change Vázquez was facing. In May 2020, her lifelong diving coach, Yunieski Hernández, died suddenly after a battle with cancer. He was a good friend of Gamboa’s through the Cuban diving community, and Vázquez described her coach as “a second father.” Gamboa said that, in bringing Vázquez to UNC, he hoped to help continue his friend’s legacy and mentorship.
“He taught her pretty much everything up to this point,” Gamboa said. “I just hope I can continue to keep her at that level and make her as good as possible.”
All things considered — a new language, a new country and the pain of a lost friend — nobody would have judged Vázquez for struggling through her first semesters. School during the COVID-19 pandemic can be challenging for anyone, especially if that person is dealing with the pressure of being one of the highest-rated diving recruits in the world.
Instead, in the face of challenge and loss, Vázquez flourished. Not first as a diver, but as a teammate and person.
It just takes one look at her Instagram page to see how close she has become with her new friends. Looking at her story, one can see videos of her teammates yelling with rabid excitement every time Vázquez flawlessly finishes a new dive, or of Vázquez and her “bro,” junior Anton Down-Jenkins, hanging out on the poolside or training on the mats. Far from awkward and socially uncomfortable, Vázquez instead looks like she’s been there forever.
Why was the match so successful? Simple: her team reminds her of home.
“I haven’t missed my home as much as I thought I would,” Vázquez said. “Of course I miss my mom, my dad, my brother and my whole family, but I’m having such a good time that I don’t think about it, that I’m not sad about it. I know it’s best for me to be here.”
‘Such an inspirational person’
If Vázquez adjusted to her new social life quickly, then she adjusted to her new team and coaches in practically no time at all.
In her first collegiate event, the Auburn Diving Invitational in December, she recorded the third-highest and fifth-highest scores in UNC history in the 1-meter and 3-meter events, respectively. Just over a month later against Virginia, Vázquez one-upped herself and set school records in the same two events — in one day.
“The funny thing is, she’s really doing great, but you can just tell she has so many things that she can get better at,” Gamboa said. “It’s going to make her top of the country at some point, hopefully soon.”
Not only has her success put her atop the school’s record boards, but it’s motivated her teammates to pursue the same excellence. Grund, a junior and another generational diving talent to come through UNC, said she’s been diving at her best since Vázquez arrived — even if those numbers don’t quite compare to Vázquez’s current mercurial run of form.
“She’s such an inspirational person to train with,” Grund said. “She works her hardest every single day, and it’s just really motivating. It pushes you to be your absolute best.”
For Vázquez, the feeling is mutual.
“She’s always trying to see if I’m doing well or if I need anything, and she always picks me up and drives me from my dorm to the pool," Vázquez said. "She’s such a nice girl. I love her.”
‘Keep doing what you’ve been doing’
It’s hard to ask the question “What’s next?” of someone who’s already set two out of three UNC women’s diving records before even competing in her first ACC Championship.
That last platform record does look enticing to Vázquez, though.
Maybe she was once a little girl whose father told her that, one day, she might be a good enough diver to go to college in the United States. But she’s here now, and she knows how good she is. Her current third-place ranking on that all-time list just won’t do. And she knows what it’ll take to get to the top.
“With all these competitions, you’re constantly competing, so you know what you have to do,” Vázquez said. “It’s just practice, practice and keep practicing.”
Though Vázquez came to UNC as a hardworking, humble, endlessly talented diver, it can be easy to get caught up in all that success. Breaking records, winning events — it’s all enjoyable. It’s in those moments that she thinks of her father, who always applauds her success but encourages her to keep that same humility and work ethic in everything she does.
“He would say, ‘Let’s stay humble, your feet always have to be on the ground,’” Vázquez said. “‘You don’t have to be someone else, you just have to keep doing what you’ve been doing so far.’”