December graduate Angie Quiroga Torres balances school and swimming while earning biology degree
Angie Quiroga Torres couldn’t wait to give her family the grand tour last weekend.
A visit to the Gateway Arch, the Saint Louis Zoo and the Missouri Botanical Garden, sure, but also the pool at the Mark Twain Athletic Center and the labs in the Science Learning Building on the University of Missouri–St. Louis campus.
All the important places she’d been able to spend the past four years of study, thanks in no small part to her talent as a swimmer and years of effort to cultivate it.
Quiroga Torres’ family made its first visit to the United States from her native Colombia to take in those sights and, more importantly, watch her receive the ultimate reward for her labor, signified by her walk across the stage during commencement ceremonies for the College of Arts and Sciences.
“It’s the best gift for Christmas for them,” Quiroga Torres said.
Her work in the pool won her the opportunity to go abroad for college, and she made the most of it by graduating cum laude with a BS in biology, a minor in environmental studies and a certificate in conservation biology.
Quiroga Torres has been swimming since she was 3 years old, but it was at age 12 that she got her first glimpse at the distance it could take her.
She qualified to represent Colombia on the international stage at the 2009 Copa Pacifico, held that year in Guayaquil, Ecuador.
Quiroga Torres went on to compete in successive years, placing second in two events in her age group in Chile and the next year winning her age group and finishing third in an open race in Bolivia.
By then, competitive swimming had become her primary focus with a specialty in the backstroke, and she arranged her days to accommodate for training.
“It made my schedule pretty busy,” Quiroga Torres said. “I had to multitask. I had to have really good time-management skills, and that helped me to actually grow academically. I knew that if I didn’t have all the time in the world to do the homework and really just had an hour to do it, I had to be disciplined and finish my homework on time.”
At a meet while in high school, Quiroga Torres encountered Fernando Jacome, a former collegiate and Olympic swimmer from Colombia who’d started a business helping other aspiring athletes navigate the process to be recruited and compete and study in the United States.
“He was doing his table there, and asked, ‘Hey, do you want to go to the United States? You want to take a card?’” Quiroga Torres said. “That was basically it.
“He knew the process and what to do.”
One thing he did was recommend a teacher for Quiroga Torres to work with to improve her English skills, and after graduating high school, she spent the next year working with him, four hours a day Monday through Friday.
Jacome also made contacts with American coaches, and Quiroga Torres wound up considering schools in Georgia, New York and Puerto Rico before choosing UMSL.
It offered a chance to study conservation biology and environmental science – interests she said that grew out of seeing issues like contaminated water and trash while growing up in Colombia.
She thought UMSL’s program was stronger than those she considered in Georgia and New York, and coming to St. Louis offered greater promise of learning English and experiencing a different culture than in Puerto Rico.
Quiroga Torres talked to then-coach Tomas Kuzvard a couple of times during the recruiting process, but she hadn’t visited St. Louis before arriving in January 2015.
Her adjustment was not always easy. Quiroga Torres’ English skills had improved dramatically over the previous year of study, but she had not been prepared for the different accents she encountered, including in an early math course taught by an instructor originally from India.
“I was super lost,” she said. “I remember I used to go to class, sit and write my name for attendance, and that was it. I couldn’t understand anything. I was just looking at the board, looking at what the professor was doing, but I didn’t know anything.”
She likewise still felt a language barrier when she started swimming practice and found herself waiting to see what the rest of the team did before following suit in the pool.
Kuzvard was patient and encouraging as she adjusted, and she made friends away from swimming with other international students, including some from South Korea who helped her sort out math.
As a student-athlete, she felt pressure to maintain a strong GPA because failure would have endangered her scholarship, but it got easier and easier over time.
“My ear could adapt to different accents,” Quiroga Torres said. “I started catching new words and getting more vocabulary.”
The discipline she began developing as a 12-year-old continued to benefit her as she juggled school and swimming throughout her time at UMSL.
“I think what she’s just done really well is just taking the things step by step and having that patience,” said Tony Hernandez, who took over as the Tritons swimming coach in 2017, before Quiroga Torres’ senior year in the pool. “I know a lot of that she learned from the pool and from swimming, but she had that in her before, and I think that’s why she’s been successful as a student and as an athlete.”
In the pool, Quiroga Torres established school records in the 50- and 100-yard backstroke as well with the 200-yard freestyle and 400-yard medley relay teams.
She accomplished enough in the classroom to win academic all-conference honors from the Great Lakes Valley Conference three times. Last spring, she was one of 16 UMSL student-athletes to receive the GLVC Council of Presidents’ Academic Excellence Award after maintaining at least a 3.5 GPA throughout her athletic career.
Quiroga Torres even found time the past two the summers to participate in research with Professor Robert Marquis, who has become a mentor. They were investigating the environmental impact of the Asiatic Oak Weevil, an invasive species in Missouri affecting different kinds of oak trees
Last summer experimented with controlled burns at the Tyson Research Center to see if they could control the weevil population.
“She was really critical to the whole project,” Marquis said. “She was one of two paid undergraduates, and there were days when either myself or my postdoc couldn’t go out with the crew, and we trusted them to get the research done and to collect the data and make sure it was done correctly. She was really essential to make sure that the project worked.”
A team captain her senior year, Quiroga Torres also has helped teammates adjust to life at UMSL.
“Swimmers come from all around the world, and she was one of the first to come over, so she was really a true pioneer, figuring out campus life,” Hernandez said. “She really has helped out a lot of people, showing them the way, showing them how to get acclimatized to U.S. culture.”
The fall semester marked the first when Quiroga Torres didn’t have the dual responsibilities of school and swimming after exhausting her eligibility last spring. She still found her way to the pool but for 40 minutes at a time, not the often 2½-hour practices that can be customary for student-athletes.
On the weekends, she found a job at the zoo at the Ron Goellner Center for Hellbender Conservation. The center is home to a successful captive breeding program of the native Missouri salamanders. Quiroga Torres assisted zookeepers in the herpetarium preparing food, performing water quality tests and occasionally even feeding the animals.
“That was the best,” she said.
Lately, Quiroga Torres has been trying to make plans for graduate school and has applied to programs for either environmental engineering – including one in South Korea – or environmental science. She expects to begin one of the programs next fall.
In the meantime, she’s been looking to land an internship in the spring semester. One possibility she recently interviewed for would have her working on coastal conservation and education projects on Bald Head Island, North Carolina.
She’s grateful for the preparation and experiences she had at UMSL.
“I wouldn’t change anything,” Quiroga Torres said. “I’m glad I did what I had to do. I wish I had more time to experience more things. I know there were a lot of different events on campus that I couldn’t attend because I had to go to practice, but it was a really great experience.”
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