When Gonzalo Quiroga arrived at UCLA last December, he was facing several unknowns.
His English was limited to textbook grammar, his fellow freshmen had already come and gone for fall quarter, and the only familiar face he had was an uncle an hour’s drive away.
But the freshman outside hitter was confident in his choice. After all, he had already been around the world for several competitions as a volleyball player in his native Argentina. Joining the UCLA men’s volleyball team gave him a chance to excel in the sport he loves while receiving a great education ““ something not possible in his home country.
“The whole experience is all new and all amazing ““ how everybody studies and plays at the same time,” Quiroga said. “This is the main reason that I came here, because in Argentina it’s different. You play volleyball for a club, or you study in a university.”
Quiroga grew up in the ideal environment for a rising volleyball star, so no one was surprised when he decided to pick up the sport as a 7-year-old. His father Daniel played on the Argentinian national team, his uncle was an Olympian in the 1984 Games, and his brother Rodrigo is the national team’s captain. Quiroga played on the renowned Argentinian club Obras Sanitarias for a decade.
Quiroga found himself playing in matches on the international level and attended the Youth Olympics in Singapore when he was 15, something he considers a career highlight.
When Daniel heard from a friend who played collegiate tennis in the States, he made a decision. He was able to convince his son that doing the same with volleyball would be best for his future.
“We were talking about this opportunity to come, and when you are just a 13-year-old boy, the only things that you want are to finish school and stay with your friends and keep playing in Argentina,” Quiroga said. “I was pretty scared to come here.”
Quiroga couldn’t have arrived at a better time. UCLA men’s volleyball coach Al Scates was leading a team that had just lost the standout outside hitter Garrett Muagututia, the team’s unquestioned leader, to graduation and needed a source of offense. The team is routinely swamped with interested athletes on international trips, but Quiroga still caught assistant coach Brian Rofer’s attention.
“We were definitely looking for an outside hitter that can pass and hit and pick up that slack right away,” Rofer said. “His volleyball IQ is far above any normal kid his age.”
The coaches and the 17-year-old quickly reached an agreement. Quiroga arrived on Dec. 27 and hit the ground running, with his first match only three days away. Despite the culture shock, he continues to excel on the court, with 2.31 kills and 0.29 aces per set. His explosive serving has spelled trouble for teams such as Brigham Young, which was on the receiving end of Quiroga’s five aces in one set on Feb. 4 ““ a UCLA record.
The team has also enjoys Quiroga’s wealth of prior experience. Although he is a freshman on a junior-heavy squad, he has taught his teammates a few things.
“He almost never makes errors in crucial situations, and he plays consistently throughout matches,” junior quick hitter Thomas Amberg said. “He keeps you up as a teammate if you’re playing down, and he never loses focus.”
Away from volleyball, Quiroga continues to adjust to a Californian lifestyle. The biggest challenge for him was the language barrier, but daily conversation has already made him a more confident speaker.
The little things also take getting used to. Quiroga was quick to mention how different meals were. Dinner comes several hours earlier than the 10 p.m. meal he’s used to, and meals aren’t as meat-based as they are in Argentina.
Quiroga receives assistance in many forms. UCLA mentors have made his experience smooth, and his uncle provides a place to stay along with some Argentinian barbecue. Of course, there’s also the team.
“If I mentioned one of the players, I would have to mention them all because they are all nice,” Quiroga said. “They are all friendly, and if I don’t understand something, they will explain it to me.”
After UCLA, Quiroga plans to continue his volleyball career like his family. He’s already shown flashes of brilliance here in Westwood, and he ultimately will be returning to Argentina, where it all started.
“One of the dreams I have is to play with my brother on the same national team,” he said. “That would be awesome.”