There are less than two weeks until the Spanish National Diving Championships, but Karina Silva is taking a break from training for an important phone call.

“Eight hundred dollars?” she asks. “Is that negotiable at all?”
After a few more logistical negotiations, she hangs up.

“Sorry about that,” she apologizes with a smile. “My bike just broke, so I’m trying to buy one on Craigslist. I mean, do you know how long it takes to walk around this school?”

These are the mundane concerns of one of UCLA’s most internationally accomplished athletes, who left for Spain on Saturday with hopes of capturing a ninth national title on tower and a score that will qualify her for this summer’s world championships. Such a score would bring Silva, who broke the Pac-10 record for points on tower in 2010, one step closer to her ultimate goal ““ representing Spain on platform at the 2012 Olympics.

“The fact is, she is the best kid in their country, at least on tower,” coach Tom Stebbins said.

This claim, however, will not be enough to ensure Silva a spot in the 2012 Games, an achievement earned instead through an arduous qualification process. If she manages to achieve a score of 300 during this weekend’s tower event, Silva will qualify for the world championships. A strong performance at worlds would make an Olympic spot a definite possibility, although each country has its own criteria for selecting representatives.

This fierce competition, however, is just one of the challenges that she will face on the road to her goal. Silva, who has been competing on an international level since age 14, still struggles with the pressure of living up to her own expectations.

“It’s terrifying. It really is,” Silva said. “The expectations get to me sometimes and make me freak out in meets, and I don’t do well. When I wear the Bruin colors, it makes me want to be good, but representing my country is a whole different scale. It’s really exciting, but it’s also nerve-wracking.”

While her Bruin teammates have always been supportive ““ fellow senior Laura Winn joined Silva in the preliminary rounds of last year’s Spanish nationals ““ Silva’s absence will certainly be felt in this weekend’s key Pac-10 showdowns against California and Stanford.

“There was only four of us at practice today,” freshman diver Paulina Guzman said. “Since there’s only this little group of us, you really feel it when someone is missing.”

While the challenge of fulfilling obligations to both school and country can be difficult, Silva wouldn’t have it any other way. Born in Miami to a Spanish family, she moved to Spain at age 14 to pursue her promising diving career. (Her brother Kristian also competed for Spain in gymnastics.) When she came of university age, however, Silva decided to follow her dreams of film school to Southern California.

“I did some research and decided on either UCLA or USC, for the combination of diving and film,” she said. “I e-mailed Tom, I talked to the ‘SC coach. I visited both schools, but this place was like heaven.”

Stebbins’ coaching style has certainly worked for Silva ““ he is now coaching her for both NCAA and international competitions ““ but such a strong connection to her Bruin teammates has its downside as well.

“It’s really hard when my coach doesn’t usually travel with me,” Silva said. “I really miss him and my teammates, and I think it affects me a little bit. I mean, I love my teammates over there, but I spend every day with these girls.”

Such a strong team bond, however, becomes even more important when unexpected challenges arise. This year, Silva was forced to miss the crucial winter training season to be with her family in Miami as her mother underwent surgery.

“When my mom had surgery, I had to leave, and Tom was 100 percent supportive,” she said. “Now, I may be a little behind, but she’s doing really well, and that gives me peace of mind.”

Judging by her strong performance at the Bruin Diving Invitational earlier this month ““ Silva placed second in both 1-meter and platform ““ she seems to be on her way to overcoming that setback. But in order to accomplish the 300 points necessary to secure a spot at the world championships, she will need to improve from the 274.20 that was her top score at that meet.

“Last winter, at the Pac-10 meet, she scored 312,” Stebbins said. “I’m hoping she can get back to that.”

While her scores and past victories prove she has the talent to compete with the top platform divers in the world, the fierce competition for the top spot in Spain ensures that making it to the Olympics will be a major challenge ““ even more so than walking across campus.