LONGMONT -- When she decided to enter an exchange student program in America, Diana Tobo dearly hoped her placement would enable her to continue her swimming career alongside her studies.
Since her placement was determined solely by the host families that were available at the time, Tobo's chances of finding an American swimming experience were slim. But she landed in Longmont, which turned out to be a blessing for both Tobo and the Silver Creek Raptors swim team.
"I really wanted to continue swimming but the people in the program told me it was possible that the place I would go wouldn't have a swimming pool or a team," Tobo said. "But my first day here, I was really excited."
Tobo, 17, is from Duitama, a city in the Boyaca Department of Colombia. She tried other sports but fell in love with swimming when she started competing at age 5.
Since arriving at practice midway through the season, Tobo has fit in seamlessly with the Raptors, who take to the pool Friday and Saturday for the Class 4A state swimming and diving championships at Veterans Memorial Aquatic Center in Thornton. After all, there is no language barrier under water.
"Swimming is like a style of life," Tobo said. "The swimming pool, I love the feeling, the competition, everything."
Tobo's specialty is the 200 backstroke. But Colorado does not have a 200-yard backstroke in prep swimming. The conversion of meters to yards also gives her trouble, as does the length of the American pool, which is 25 yards instead of her familiar 50 meters.
Her first several weeks with the Raptors, Tobo struggled with the difference in distance and laps. But her teammates helped her out.
"She didn't know how many to count and she had trouble counting lengths for the first two weeks," Raptors lane partner Leah Burnett said. "We had to literally grab her by her feet to stop her."
Tobo has since adapted to American swimming convention. At the Longmont All-City meet on Jan. 19, she took second in both the 200 freestyle and 100 backstroke. She also swam on the Raptors' winning medley relay team and winning 400 freestyle relay team.
At the Northern Conference meet, Tobo finished third in the backstroke and fourth in the 200 freestyle. She also swam the backstroke leg of the Raptors' second-place medley relay team and swam with the third-place 400 freestyle relay team.
Tobo is ranked first nationally in her age group in the 200 backstroke, according to Raptors head coach Debbie Stewart. But swimming in Colombia is not the same as swimming in the United States, which regularly dominates international competition.
"She told us she was nationally-ranked in Colombia. Well, nationally ranked in Colombia can be a whole heck of a lot different than American swimmers," Stewart said. "We really didn't know what her abilities were but she's swam really well."
Stewart has coached the Raptors for 12 years. Tobo is the first exchange student she's had since Florian Harder, a talented German breakstroke swimmer who won the school's first state championship.
Tobo's expectations may not be reaching for a state title, but she's certainly been a major contributor to her team's effort this season. She will swim the 100 backstroke and 200 freestyle, her favorites, at state. She also will swim with the 200 medley relay and the 400 freestyle relay.
"Being a foreign exchange student and she's such an outstanding swimmer and the girls connected with her very quickly," Stewart said. "The girls were all impressed with how good a swimmer she is and she made friends very fast."
Since Colombian swim teams are club teams and aren't associated with schools, which makes it easier to do team-building exercises and easier for friendships among teammates to flourish during normal school hours, Tobo said Colombian teams aren't as close-knit as they are in America.
"The girls, the team, are like a family," Tobo said.
Tobo said she came to America one month ago to improve her English. She's scheduled to return to Colombia in June, but hopes to get a scholarship and stay in America where she can also continue her swim training.
While she's here, Tobo has found her swimming outlet with the Silver Creek Raptors. Her next American experience will be the Colorado state championships.
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