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'I couldn't believe it happened': UNC junior diver Aranza Vazquez reflects on two national titles

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Aranza Vazquez sits on a diving board in Koury Natatorium on Monday, March 27, 2023. Vazquez is the first UNC diver to hold an NCAA title. Photo courtesy of Ira Wilder.

Junior Aranza Vazquez took a moment to shake off all the feelings that had been circling in her head. 

Confidence. 

Nerves. 

Excitement.

Surrounding her on all sides were the nation’s best divers and fellow Olympians — soon to be her competition as she took the platform in the NCAA Championship's one-meter springboard event. 

She went on to perform the best she had all season, taking home the national title with a score of 358.75, 18 points ahead of the runner-up diver. 

Just three weeks earlier, Vazquez was in disbelief over her triple crown-earning performance at the ACC Championship meet. Now, she surprised herself again by winning two national titles in a matter of 24 hours at the NCAA Division I Women’s Swimming and Diving Championship meet in Knoxville, Tenn. 

Vazquez described waiting for her name on the scoreboard after the one-meter dive as the longest 15 seconds of her life.

“I started crying because I couldn't believe it happened,” Vazquez said. “Last year was hard, so finally being able to perform the way that I used to made me so happy and I just cried.”

Soon after earning her first NCAA title, Vazquez took home another gold in the three-meter dive with a score of 385.80. 

Vazquez became the first UNC diver to win the title in the one-meter springboard and the seventh individual female Tar Heel athlete to win a national championship. She is also only the second female UNC athlete to win multiple titles in any individual sport.

Vazquez is proud to be a part of UNC’s diving history, especially after overcoming her post-Olympic depression from last season. 

Once Vazquez returned from the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, she put pressure on herself to perform perfectly at every event. Because she'd reached such a high level of competition, she felt there was no room for error in her college meets. 

In order to reset herself, Vazquez went home to Mexico last summer and took a break from diving. She relied heavily on support from her teammates and head diving coach Yaidel Gamboa. 

“I really had to reconsider if I really wanted to do this and be a good diver,” Vazquez said.

One year and two NCAA titles later, Gamboa is hardly surprised with Vazquez’s recent success, referring to her as “the best competitor I have ever had.”

On March 20, Vazquez was named the College Swimming Coaches Association of America Division I Women’s Diver of the Year, and Gamboa was named the CSCAA Division I Women’s Diving Coach of the Year. 

While Gamboa is proud of what Vazquez has accomplished, the diver is also proud of her coach. 

Vazquez said that seeing Gamboa’s dreams coming true is “crazy,” especially considering that when Gamboa first came to the United States almost 11 years ago, he hardly spoke any English. Now, Gamboa has earned one of the highest coaching honors in collegiate diving. 

“When I started coaching, I thought about this moment and what it would be like to coach the best athletes in the world and be considered one of the best coaches around,” Gamboa said. “I love to teach my kids that we can all do this together. If we know what we want, we can lay out a plan and we can go after it no matter how long it takes.”

In addition to helping guide Vazquez to success, Gamboa also helped lead four other divers to the NCAA championship qualifiers — Anton Down-Jenkins, Emily Grund, Haley Marshall and Paige Burrell. 

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Gamboa served as a grounding presence over the course of Vazquez’s events, reminding her that everyday is a set of new dives and a new competition to face. Vazquez said her teammates were her biggest fans all weekend, cheering her on after her dives and supporting her mentally. Vazquez also had the support of her family, who came from Mexico to watch her compete.

Senior diver Emily Grund, a close friend of Vazquez outside of the pool, was not surprised at Vazquez’s dominance at nationals after watching how hard she has worked all season. 

“She comes to the pool every single day, with a smile on her face, ready to work hard and push the limit,” Grund said. “She wants to learn better, harder dives and she does it with a smile on her face every single time. Even when she's having a bad day, whether it be school or anything, she doesn't bring it into the pool. It was absolutely amazing to see all of her hard work pay off.”

At the end of April, Vazquez plans to return home to Mexico with the aim of qualifying for the 2023 FINA World Aquatics Championships. Vazquez is setting her goals high — she wants next year to be her best year of competition yet in preparation for the 2024 Olympics.

And if not for her perseverance over the past two years, through her Olympic depression and the intense pressure she put on herself, Vazquez may not be in this position.  

“It puts it into perspective,” Vazquez said. “Everything happens for a reason.” 

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@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com