Dave Parrington a man now with a country

UT diving coach takes long way to citizenship

University of Tennessee diving coach Dave Parrington is pictured at the Allen Jones Aquatic Center on Tuesday. Parrington is originally from Zimbabwe and arrived in the United States in 1978 as a college student. He received his U.S. citizenship this past December and also will be inducted into the Greater Knoxville Sports Hall of Fame.

Photo by Saul Young, copyright © 2012

University of Tennessee diving coach Dave Parrington is pictured at the Allen Jones Aquatic Center on Tuesday. Parrington is originally from Zimbabwe and arrived in the United States in 1978 as a college student. He received his U.S. citizenship this past December and also will be inducted into the Greater Knoxville Sports Hall of Fame.

Tennessee diving coach Dave Parrington is sworn in as a U.S. citizen on Dec. 14, 2011, in a private ceremony in Knoxville.

Photo by Special to the News Sentinel

Tennessee diving coach Dave Parrington is sworn in as a U.S. citizen on Dec. 14, 2011, in a private ceremony in Knoxville.

Dave Parrington takes long way to citizenship.

Right hand up, chest puffed proud, Dave Parrington sealed the deal on December 14, 2011.

"I take this obligation freely without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God," he boasted.

With that, Parrington, the University of Tennessee diving coach since 1990, crossed a 33-year-old task off his to-do list.

The self-admitted "man with no country" became a United States citizen in a private ceremony in a Knoxville courtroom. The American flag pin on his lapel watched on as he shook hands with the judge.

"I was emotional — inside," Parrington said last week, two months before he's to be inducted into the Greater Knoxville Sports Hall of Fame. "There weren't tears and stuff, it was in my own mind. A lot of the thoughts were, why did I wait so long? What a relief."

A reflective smile crept across Parrington's rotund face with the word relief. His buoyant accent, born in Britain and raised on the South African terrain of what was then Rhodesia but is now Zimbabwe, recalls his meandering life story with flair.

Parrington's office walls inside UT's Allan Jones Aquatic Center offer a hall of fame resume. He's coached six NCAA champion divers, one world champion, 80 All-America honorees and been named SEC coach of the year 10 times. He competed in the 1980 Moscow Olympics representing Zimbabwe and later coached the team at the 1996 Atlanta Games and the 2000 Olympics in Sydney.

The accolades are endless.

"I haven't taken anything for granted (in the U.S.)," Parrington said. "I enjoy every single day working with these elite athletes and I bust my butt at it. That goes back to my days serving because I saw a lot of stuff — a lot of tragedy and death — so when that's planted in your mind, you know full well that you might not be here the next day. I've kept that with me ever since."

Parrington won't be the first current or former UT coach inducted into the Hall of Fame. He is, however, unlike any other.

Despite living the past 33 years on U.S. soil, Parrington's crust was molded by the fingers of Southern Africa. When he was 3, his father, a world-class swimming coach, and his mother, a former Olympic swimmer, moved from Great Britain to the English colony of Southern Rhodesia in 1959.

They settled in the capital city of Salisbury, now known as Harare, perched high on Rhodesia central plateau.

Salisbury, a city resembling those found in the U.S. and England at the time, would be Parrington's home for the next 19 years. A middle-class upbringing included three servants, a good education and plenty of swimming and diving.

English roots, though, meant allegiance to the British crown. Law required Parrington to enlist for one year of national service. He chose the British South Africa Police and enrolled for three years.

Despite what follows here, Parrington said last week that those three years offered "real-life living and discipline that steered me for the rest of my life."

In the early-to-mid-1970s, Rhodesia was enthralled in a guerilla war. Black opposition to white rule seethed into a civil war. Rival factions seeking supporters aimed at tackling the country's white minority government battled both the British opposition and each other.

A civil war brought terrorism, terrorism brought violence and death. Violence and death brought Parrington to the front lines.

"I was in charge of going out to villages to investigate reports of terrorism," Parrington said. "If we were involved in what we called 'a contact,' then so be it."

Describing the scenes of Rhodesia's strife, Parrington's tone takes a distinct turn. Villagers were stabbed to death in front of family and neighbors. Limbs were lopped off. Ears were severed.

"These were terrorist acts against their own people," he said. "It was sickening. It was terrible, just sickening. That shapes you, you know?"

Not many do.

Relief came in 1978. Thanks to a budding diving career, 23-year-old Parrington landed a scholarship to the University of Houston in the United States.

A year after his departure, the first democratic election ever held in Rhodesia turned the country into Zimbabwe.

"I only came over to spread my wings and see a bit of the world," Parrington said. "I thought I'd come over here and dive for a year or two at Houston."

But despite representing Zimbabwe in the 3-meter and platform at the 1980 Games, Parrington would never call the country home.

After graduating in 1983, he eyed the vacant head-coaching job at Houston. A steady stream of Zimbabwean divers had followed Parrington's path to the school, giving him leverage. He walked into UH swimming coach Phil Hansel's office and said, "Give me the job and they'll stay."

Just like that, Parrington got his first coaching gig. Seven years later, having produced seven All-American divers, he accepted a job offer from Tennessee.

"That was a no-brainer," he said.

Holding a green card since 1989, Parrington started the naturalization process countless times over the years. Each time, for one reason or another, he'd fall short.

Finally, at the end of last summer, urged by his wife, Marie, who he married in 2009, Parrington completed every test, task and trial. December brought U.S. citizenship. In November, he'll pull the curtain closed behind him and vote for the first time as a 57-year-old American.

"I never officially had a country," Parrington said. "Now, all the sudden, I'm an American and it's great. It's a pretty special thing and I couldn't be more proud."

Behind Parrington's beaming grin, a charcoal-colored elephant bathed in the golds and blues of the African brush serves as his screensaver. He took the picture on a recent trip "home."

"If you talk to many Africans — black or white — they'll all say that Africa is never taken out of them," said Parrington, who returns to Zimbabwe every few years. "Now I've spent more of my life in America than I have anywhere else, but I still feel that African part of my blood.

In the end, Parrington may have been a man without a country, but he was never without an identity.

Now he has both.

Brendan F. Quinn covers Tennessee men's basketball. Follow him at http://twitter.com/BFQuinn

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Comments » 9

WetumpkaThumpa writes:

Congratulations Coach!

Couchdummy writes:

Very well written article. Looks like we may have a good journalist to replace a sorely missed Andrew Gribble. He and Mike Strange are very credible writers and I enjoy their work!

Noogaorange writes:

Congrads Coach. Glad to have you as a fellow American. Keep up the good work. GBO

Ichabod writes:

Great story, and I agree on the writing, what a pleasure, and change from the norm. Most importantly,
CONGRATULATIONS COACH !!
That is a great Fourth of July story.....

Tau_of_Tennessee writes:

If you are coming to America, Tennessee is one of the best places to be. Congrats coach.

frblalack writes:

Great article; class act! Congratulations Coach!!!

All Vols - All the Time - Vol for Life - I Bleed Orange!

Wayfarer writes:

Congratulations on completing the process to become an American Citizen.

johnlg00 writes:

in response to Couchdummy:

Very well written article. Looks like we may have a good journalist to replace a sorely missed Andrew Gribble. He and Mike Strange are very credible writers and I enjoy their work!

I agree that Quinn has been a breath of fresh air on the KNS staff, and this article was very informative. However, he seems to have stretched a bit beyond his present competence with some of his word choices and grammatical flourishes. Just tell it straight, Brendan. That alone will make you stand out on this staff like a petunia in an onion patch.

BigBadVol writes:

Congrats coach! Now if we had a President that was an American I would feel a lot better.😡

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