PHOENIX, Arizona, July 24. DARIAN Townsend officially became a United States citizen today, opening the door for the South Africa-born Olympic champion to represent Team USA in international swimming competition.
“This has been a long process,” Townsend said in an interview with Swimming World. “You don’t think this day will ever come, and now it has arrived.”
Townsend is now eligible to compete in 13 days at the USA Swimming nationals, which is closed to foreign athletes since it is a selection meet for international competition. The 29-year-old could put his new U.S. passport to use immediately if he gains a roster spot on the Pan Pacific team, racing at the end of August in Australia. He could also make the 2015 world championship team, which is also being picked in Irvine, Calif., at next month’s nationals. Further down the road, it gives Townsend the chance to swim for the United States at the 2016 Olympics. Townsend represented South Africa at three Olympic Games (2004, 2008, 2012) and was part of the winning 400 free relay in 2004 that set the world record.
Townsend’s top events are the 100 and 200 freestyles, as well as the 200 individual medley. He’s the former world record holder in the short course meters 200 IM, which he set in 2009 with a 1:51.55. He moved to the United States to swim and study at the University of Florida in 2004. He transferred to the University of Arizona in 2006 and won NCAA titles in the 200 free (2007) and 200 IM (2008).
Townsend said his decision to pursue American sports citizenship began in 2012, when he watched the U.S. Olympic swimming trials. Noticing that his lifetime best time in the 200 freestyle would have qualified for the American team, he began to seriously consider applying for citizenship.
“I had been living here since 2004, so it seemed like the natural thing to do,” he said.
But Townsend experienced a few doubts along the way as the reality of cutting ties with his birth country became evident.
“Since I was switching to another country, and one that is as high profile as the U.S., I wondered if I was doing the right thing,” he said. “It doesn’t feel weird anymore. Once I started calling South Africa a place to visit and started calling the U.S. home, I knew it was the right choice.”
Townsend received his green card in 2009, allowing him to live in the United States as a permanent resident and requiring him to pay taxes on income. Federal law doesn’t allow a foreigner to apply for American citizenship until they have lived in the United States with a green card for five years. When that day approached last February, Townsend got busy with all the documents required to start the process.
He passed his citizenship test last week, which included being able to write and speak sentences in English for a representative of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services. The last step in the process was taking the oath of citizenship today in Phoenix.
Townsend said he will be able to keep his South African passport and use it if he likes until it expires, thereby giving him dual citizenship. He said his family gave him full support to pursue American citizenship.
“They (my parents) never questioned what I was doing,” he said.
As far as the regulations go for FINA, the world governing body for swimming, Townsend was required to reside in the USA for a year and not represent any country internationally for a year. The last time Townsend wore a South African flag on his cap was August 11, 2013, at the FINA World Cup, so he meets the timetable requirement, as the Pan Pacific championships begins on August 21.
“We are very proud and honored that Darian chose to become a U.S. citizen and represent this great country,” USA Swimming said in a statement. “America is the land of opportunity, where Darian may now compete for a coveted position on our international teams. His participation at the Phillips 66 National Championships next month in Irvine will be his first attempt to qualify for Team USA, for selection on our Pan Pacific Championships team.
“Darian joins an extremely talented group of National Team swimmers who positively represent our nation in and out of the pool on a daily basis. His longtime commitment, humility and discipline mirror the amazing attributes that all swimmers share and enjoy in our sport.”
If Townsend makes an international racing squad for Team USA, he will not be the first to wear the Stars and Stripes after previously representing another country. Mike Alexandrov was born in Bulgaria but moved to the United States at a young age with his parents. As a college swimmer at Northwestern University, he set the short course yards American record in the 100 breast in 2007, but competed for Bulgaria at the 2008 Olympics. The following year, he declared the United States as his new sports nation. Adam Mania was born in the USA to Polish parents, represented Poland at the 2004 Olympics and made the USA national team in 2007.
Vlad Morozov, who moved to the United States as a teenager with his mother after growing up in Siberia, attempted to gain U.S. citizenship before the 2012 Olympic Trials. He decided to represent his native Russia internationally and stands by that decision.
Townsend said he is excited to see the results of his former South African teammates at this week’s Commonwealth Games, including roommate Roland Schoeman. But his attention is squarely focused on the upcoming U.S. nationals. Though he often had little difficulty qualifying for South African international teams, he knows getting on the American roster will be much tougher.
“I’ve been told the U.S. (selection meets) are some of the toughest meets in the world, as I’m about to find out,” he said. “I’m not going into the meet thinking ‘Yeah, I’m definitely going to Australia’ because I know it’s not going to be easy. But I’m happy to have the chance now to represent the USA.”