Zeng’s impossible dream

Marvin Westwestwords

If all goes well, we may soon acquire a new American, legal, accomplished, intellectual, ambitious, dedicated.


Zhipeng “Colin” Zeng, University of Tennessee athlete of the year, three-time NCAA diving champion, is seeking U.S. citizenship. He came from China without the guaranteed right to return. No problem. He wants to stay.

If the wheels that are turning turn fast enough, he might represent the Volunteers and his adopted country in the 2020 Olympics. UT coach Dave Parrington says Colin is that good.

There was a time Zeng hated diving. He had to do it to survive. Now it is his dream.

“God gave me a gift for diving,” Zeng said. “I would do as much as I can to glorify Him. It would be a huge moment to go to the Olympics.”

Zeng won the national one-meter title this spring. He finished third in the 3-meter and fifth in the platform. He scored 50 points. For an unprecedented second time, he was named NCAA diver of the year. Of course, all-America honors are included.

Before that, he twice won national titles. He has been an outstanding student. His major was kinesiology. He was Tennessee’s nominee for the Boyd McWhorter distinguished scholarship.

That Zeng is here is a mid-sized miracle. He was born in a mountainous community near Gutian, in the Fujian province, at a time when the Chinese government tried to restrict couples to only one child. The Zengs were already out of favor. They had two girls.

When the mother was a few weeks from delivering again, a government medic came to the house to perform an abortion. The mother fled. She jumped from a low balcony. The landing induced labor. Zhipeng was born. The family was assessed a significant fine.

Later, there was the issue of what to do about education. The Chinese government said, because of limited resources, only the firstborn could be publicly schooled. The Zengs found a way around that mandate. An official screening at age 7 discovered the boy had exceptional flexibility and balance, an aptitude for sports such as gymnastics. A diving school in Beijing became a possibility. It opened the door for a chance at an education.

The parents wept but signed a long-term contract and allowed their little boy to board a train for a long, long ride – 968 miles. Thereafter, his days were divided between the water and the classroom. The program was rigid. You might call it harsh. He saw his family each Chinese New Year.

Alas, politics eventually changed. The national team took control of the training center. Zeng’s coach was ousted. The exceptional youth was assigned to the Olympic diving program, but that meant full-time training and no more school. His parents caught the train to Beijing to advocate for his continuing education. When they departed, Zhipeng took the heat. He was told he was a burden on the system and that he should never have been born. He was dismissed.

At 15, he was out on the streets. Despair drove him to contemplate suicide.

“I cried for a while, but I thought of the story of my mom risking her life to give birth to me.”

Another mother of another diver spotted him one day at his private shelter, a drainage culvert. She took him home.

There is more to this miracle. That woman had relatives in California, and her daughter was going to a diving camp at Stanford. Somehow, she procured a visitor’s visa so Zeng could go along. So, it cost money, a few more yuan, here and there.

Zeng met Ethan Canty. Ethan told his parents about the unbelievable young man from China. They began a quiet investigation. A former coach said Zeng should not return to China, that some of his previous coaches had disappeared. The woman who got him the visa sent word that his life might be in danger.

Jolyn and Earle Canty became Zhipeng’s guardians. He lived with them and went to high school. He was slow on the liftoff. He couldn’t speak English, but he learned. He graduated with honors. He was twice a national diving champion. He changed his first name to Colin because he liked the way it sounded. He became a Christian.

Tennessee recruited him. He chose Ohio State. He became Big 10 diver of the year. He won the 2016 NCAA platform championship. He was third in 2017.

The reputation of UT coach Dave Parrington is international. Colin remembered him from recruiting. Colin transferred.

“I came to Tennessee because there’s such a strong support system. Coach Parrington’s coaching is very positive. He’s very specific and organized.”

Zeng became a winner again. Last year, he won the NCAA platform, placed second on the 3-meter springboard and fourth on the 1-meter. He was named NCAA diver of the year. His adoptive parents led the cheers.

The Cantys were at Austin this year. You bet they stood and applauded and cried and hugged.

Parrington said Zeng is more than a champion diver.

“He is an exemplary young man.”

The coach can relate to Zeng’s pursuit of citizenship. He went through a similar process. He was born in Britain and raised in South Africa, in what was then Rhodesia but is now Zimbabwe.

Parrington participated in the 1980 Olympics. He earned a scholarship to Houston. He became a coach. He had a green card, but he never felt like he had a country.

Several times he started the naturalization process. Each time, for one reason or another, he fell short. Finally, at age 57, he became an American.

“It’s a pretty special thing, and I couldn’t be more proud.”

Zeng can’t contend for an Olympic opportunity without a country. He says he feels blessed to have Parrington’s guidance.

Marvin West invites reader comments or questions. His address is marvinwest75@gmail.com.

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