At 14 Anton Slobounov wanted a car.
So his dad struck a deal with him, promising Slobounov an automobile if he made a national team at the age of 18 in the sport of diving.
Slobounov was hesitant of the deal.
He was just a long-haired skateboarder at the time with no prior training in gymnastics or in diving in general.
Slobounov knew very little about diving but the man who introduced him to the sport was quite knowledgeable. Anton’s dad, Sam Slobounov used to be an Olympic coach for the USSR in diving.
Born in Russia, Slobounov moved to the United States at the age of 7 where he first lived in Illinois before his parents found work at Penn State. His older sisters Vera and Kate actually dove a bit, too, one for a year-and-a-half and the other for just four weeks.
But Slobounov would exceed this time frame by years.
He said yes to the deal as he slowly made his transition into diving.
Slobounov cut off his long curls and trained at Penn State’s gym where his parents knew Slavo Boiko, the assistant coach in gymnastics for Penn State.
There Slobounov developed his front rolls, back flips and worked out. In the summer his dad sent him to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where he furthered his technique in diving by being a part of the Fort Lauderdale Dive Team.
Anton would spend the next three summers in Florida.
‘I really enjoyed my time there. It was just for me,’ Slobounov said.
Yet he realized this was his dad’s way of keeping him interested in diving. With his dad teaching him everything about diving in his five-year commitment to the sport, diving became a job to Slobounov.
‘No romantic state, just diving,’ Slobounov said. ‘I enjoy winning, that’s about it.’
Anton stayed away from his State College Area High School diving team until his sophomore year, when he finished 2nd at State. But with Slobounov’s extensive training in diving, high school diving would be unfair. While Slobounov was doing 360 dives, ‘people were doing pencil dives.’
‘Nobody could beat that,’ Slobounov said, until he got to the State and national level.
In his junior year, Slobounov decided not to go to State and instead compete in a meet. Because of his decision to forgo State, Penn State’s head directors told Slobounov he could not train at its pool.
Slobounov lost eight months of pool time until he came back and continued his training in the pool. During that period Slobounov stayed in the gym.
Slobounov dove in the winter for his high school while he competed in the U.S.A. diving invitationals in the summer. With high school coming to an end, Slobounov was deciding what his next move would be.
‘I worked too hard to not take advantage of it,’ Slobounov said of his athletic career in diving.
His sisters Vera and Kate attended Penn State and his parents worked there, as well. It seemed a good choice as he was interested in it as well as Ohio State, the University of Texas and UC Irvine.
Slobounov’s dad happened to know Dennis Taylor who worked in clinics with him and was a mutual friend of Curt Wilson, UCI’s head diving coach.
‘I sent [Wilson] a tape and he invited me to see and look at the school,’ Slobounov said.
Wilson believed Slobounov was ‘looking for a school that would fit diving and athletics’ as well as academics. Wilson was sold on the idea of Slobounov.
‘Very impressive tapes,’ Wilson said. ‘He’s a phenomenal talent.’
Slobounov, who really liked UCI himself, decided this was it.
Moving to the West Coast was huge. ‘I was really babied and never had a job,’ Slobounov said.
But he had sister, Vera, who was already living in San Diego, which helped ease the transition.
In his freshman year, he was very excited and tried to stay healthy and not get hurt.
‘It took me a little time to adjust,’ Slobounov said.
Slobounov had to get used to the change in coaches.
He didn’t have his father figure of a dad coaching him, but the ‘great man that is Curt Wilson,’ Slobounov said.
That wasn’t the only hard part.
‘I’d be done with practice and beat,’ Slobounov said, but he would have to get to the books right after.
It was harder academically, too, as Slobounov never took any college prep classes and ‘was riding on the fact that I was an athlete and could go anywhere I wanted.’
Even with the change in environment and academics, Slobounov made his name known in his first Big West Championship where he won the one- and three-meter diving titles.
The following year, added pressure was on him, but it was key to stay focused.
‘Having a good coach and supportive team that works hard and pushed you to continue helps,’ Slobounov said.
After an excellent show at the Big West Championships, Slobounov figured he could defeat his two titles in the years to come.
Slobounov was unaware of what he was about to accomplish in Big West diving.
‘I wasn’t sure what the record was,’ Slobounov said. ‘I was there to compete with myself and at every meet.’
Slobounov defended his one- and three-meter diving titles during his sophomore year until he faced a tremendous challenge in his junior year.
‘Basically, [he] had a huge meltdown,’ Wilson said.
Suddenly Slobounov was unsure of his dives. He lost his confidence.
Wilson saw it a little at the end of his sophomore year but by the time it was the fall of his junior year, Slobounov was not where he needed to be.
Wilson had to break everything down and relearn all of Slobounov’s past and what dives he knew so Slobounov could gain the confidence to do it on a regular basis.
Eventually, ‘[Slobounov] had more confidence and consistency on how things work,’ Wilson said.
But that was not the only challenge he faced.
A shoulder injury plagued Slobounov. He toughened it out during training and in the Big West Conference.
With his newfound confidence of his diving abilities, ‘there was no turning back,’ Wilson said. ‘Once he was back on track he was there.’
Slobounov went back to the Big West Championships and defended his titles for a third straight time.
He also now holds the record in most individual dives held by anyone in the Big West Conference.
Slobounov went for the third time to the NCAA Zone E Regionals where he placed 10th in the one-meter and 11th in the three-meter.
This still wasn’t enough for him.
‘No one is ever satisfied,’ Slobounov said. ‘There’s just always the drive for more. I’m thrilled with what I’ve been doing in the conference, absolutely.’
Just a few weeks ago Slobounov went in for surgery, where they cleaned out a tear in his rotator cuff.
‘In a lot of ways, he is a brand new guy all around,’ Wilson said. ‘Because he’s become more aware of why he’s diving and doing it for himself. It’s more enjoyment then before.’
With the help of Miguel Gallardo, the Sports Medicine staff, Wilson and Head Swimming Coach Brian Pajer, Slobounov is where he is.
Now his goal is to improve on his dives and become more consistent.
How do you win in a diving competition?
‘You need to do really hard dives well, that’s how you win,’ Slobounov said.
With one more year to go, he’s a major force to reckon with in the pool, that is as soon as he finishes his rehabilitation for his shoulder.
Oh, and about that deal.
It’s a red sports car.