Darian Townsend first arrived in America in 2004. He was in Gatorville — that is, Gainesville, Florida.
The 20-year-old South African, a talented swimmer, had never left his homeland before. And he was homesick for much of his first two years as a member of the Florida Gators.
The United States was not home then.
It is now.
Townsend was sworn in as a citizen Thursday at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Phoenix Field Office.
“It was a really good feeling,” said Townsend, who finished his career with the Arizona Wildcats in 2008. “If 10 years ago somebody had asked me, ‘Do you think you’re going to become a U.S. citizen?’ I would probably have said no.
“The first two years I was still very much homesick, going away from my family. It was my first time being in a different country. After the first year, I got more used to the U.S., and I started to fall in love with the country, to fall in love with the people. Pretty much, when I moved to Arizona, there was really no looking back.”
Townsend, who still speaks with a thick South African twang, transferred to the UA after two years in Florida.
In college, he was an eight-time NCAA Champion. He’s swam in three Olympics, winning a gold medal — and setting a world record — as part of South Africa’s 4 x 100 freestyle relay team at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens.
But that was all, technically, as a South African. Now, it’ll be as an American.
Townsend is now eligible to compete in the USA Swimming nationals, which start 12 days from now and are closed to foreign athletes since it is a selection meet for international competition.
He’ll be eligible to swim for the United States in the 2016 Summer Olympics.
So, why now?
“Well, I had my green card for five years, and part of it had to do with swimming,” he said. “I want to represent the U.S. in the Olympics, but at the same time it had more to do with me being a part of this society. I came here in 2004, I went through college, I coached here, I’ve worked here, and I just felt like it was my time to change and become a part of this society.”
Townsend needed the process to be speedy to be eligible for the USA Swimming nationals, so it was quite the quick turnaround for the former Wildcat.
On July 17, he passed his citizenship test, which included writing and speaking sentences in English for a representative of the USCIS.
“I studied a lot,” he said, “so I was fine.”
He was sworn in Thursday along with 21 other new citizens. The ceremony started with the viewing of a video and continued with the pledge of allegiance before the new citizens were presented with a new certificate deeming them Americans. About 15 of Townsend’s friends from Phoenix and Tucson — Townsend still lives in the Old Pueblo — came for the ceremony.
The overall process isn’t always that quick, though.
Chris Putton, a former UA offensive lineman, can attest to that.
Two years ago during spring football practices, Putton drove up to Phoenix on April 10, took his citizenship test, passed it, and then had to wait three months before being sworn in.
Putton lived in Germany until he was 7 years old and he moved to Phoenix, and he’s lived in America ever since.
Fitting, then, that he was sworn in as a U.S. Citizen on maybe the most American day of them all, back in 2012 — July 4.
“Honestly, it felt like I’ve been an American for a lot longer because of how long I’ve been here,” said Putton, who currently works for a flowing supply company in Scottsdale. “I felt like I’d always been an American, it just made it official two years ago.”
Townsend said he’s excited to wear the red, white and blue as a swimmer for the second time. The Wildcats, after all, wear cardinal and navy.
“It’ll be weird at first, when I put that American flag cap on,” Townsend said. “But it’s a feeling I’m really looking forward to.”