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2016 Olympics: Pac-12 Diver of the Year Rafael Quintero set to make Olympic debut

RIO DE JANEIRO -- Rafael Quintero is right where he ought to be -- in Rio for the 2016 Olympics representing Puerto Rico.

Except instead of tumbling around the mat as a gymnast, Quintero will be leaping off the 10m platform as a diver for his native country. Considering he just picked up the sport seven years ago, the 22-year-old is already in elite company.

“It’s definitely a dream come true for me,” Quintero said. “Ever since I was 5 years old, I’ve always thought about going to the Olympics. I didn’t know it was going to be in the sport of diving -- I thought it was going to be gymnastics, but I’m so grateful to be here no matter what.”

Growing up Puerto Rico, Quintero excelled as a gymnast, ranking as his country’s No. 2 athlete in the all-around on the junior national team. But at the age of 15, he made the switch to diving and eventually earned a spot on the University of Arizona’s diving team. This past April, Quintero was named Pac-12 Diver of the Year after posting a couple of runner-up finishes in the NCAA Championships.

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Looking back on his college experience in Tucson, Quintero said the high-pressure meets at the end of the year have helped calm his nerves heading into Friday’s preliminaries. Between his college and international obligations, Quintero said he’s only taken about three weeks off in the past 12 months.

“I feel a lot more comfortable with my dives,” Quintero said. “It’s pretty much just a routine for me right now, which is good. I am so relaxed. Competing at a collegiate level, we have really good competitions, especially in the Pac-12. It’s really good practice for me to visualize my dives and just be there and compete. Now that I’m in the Olympics, it just feels like another competition. I feel very relaxed, I don’t feel too much pressure or anxiety or anything.”

It also helps to have his college coach, Arizona’s Omar Ojeda, by his side as Puerto Rico’s national coach. Ojeda coached the Mexican national team from 2008-11 before moving to Arizona, where he and Quintero have been working together ever since.

“We started making the climb to the Olympics from the NCAAs and the Conference meets,” Ojeda said. “This is what we planned to do is to be here. … I'm very proud, very happy with everything we have been accomplishing. Even more because he came to Arizona with only three years of experience of diving, which is nothing. Now he's here in the Olympics.”

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Aside from competing against some of the nation’s best divers, including Stanford’s Kristian Ipsen, who placed fifth in the 3m springboard finals on Wednesday, Quintero said he’s been grateful to learn from a coach like Ojeda. When he steps to the platform Friday, Quintero will become the fifth diver in Arizona history to compete in the Olympics.

“I think Omar is one of the top coaches, not only the U.S., but in the world as well,” Quintero said. “He’s definitely helped me get to the next level in diving. I’m very grateful that I met him in Arizona and I was able to have him for four years.”

Looking ahead to the competition, Quintero has laid out some lofty goals for himself.

“Before I started practicing here, my main goal was to get into the finals,” Quintero said. “Now that I’ve been here, practicing and comparing myself to the other divers, I think I can definitely be top five or top six in the final if I have a really good list in the final. But first I got to focus on getting into the final.”

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