Thursdays With ... Mariana Aquino

Sept. 15, 2011

Every Thursday, will sit down with a member of the women's volleyball team. This week, we talk with sophomore Mariana Aquino, who discusses her pilgrimage to the United States from Brazil, her unique nickname and her future aspirations as a singer. How exciting was it to sweep the Trojans at their place, the first road sweep at USC in 18 years?
Mariana Aquino: It was amazing. We were coming off a loss against Pepperdine and we were really excited for this game. We wanted to prove to everyone that we are going to have an amazing season this year. It was a good feeling to beat them in their house with the place packed. Everyone played together.

.com: What are some of the things this team has been doing well to start the season?
MA: We are playing together. Everyone has the same goal. Everyone is helping each other. It doesn't matter if we are practicing or playing, everyone is talking with each other and that's the most important thing to a team playing well. If there is one person not going to the same goal, it's going to put everyone down.

.com: When did you start playing volleyball?
MA: I started when I was nine, but I grew up so fast that I had knee problems so I had to stop and I started swimming. I started playing again with club when I was 12.

.com: Why did you decide to attend college in the United States?
MA: My dad lived here for a year in North Dakota as an exchange student in his senior year of high school. His dream was always to have me out of the country and going to college, but he never told me that because he wanted me to follow what I wanted to do. But when I had offers and people recruiting me, my dad told me he always wanted me to go. And it was cool because that's what I was thinking of doing.

.com: How were you recruited by UCLA?
MA: I was playing with my club team and this club director who had her daughter going to the United States to play for Louisiana Tech knew this company that specializes in sending Brazilian athletes in all sports to the United States. They help you with everything, making your video to send to universities. I thought that was cool and I really needed help with that. But before I sent my video, they had asked me what part of the U.S. I wanted to go to, and I wanted to go to a warm place because I'm from Brazil and I don't like snow. That's not happening. I received about 25 letters from universities and one of them was UCLA. I had heard of UCLA, but I didn't know how good the team was. But I loved the colors. I love blue and gold. And I thought that Los Angeles was so cool. Then I did official visits to a few schools, including UCLA, but I knew I wanted to come here.

.com: What advice would you give to other foreign athletes who want to play in the U.S.?
MA: First, you can't go to a college in the United States without knowing English. Take an English course in high school. And also get good grades. Your GPA counts for a lot. Athletically, always try and get your name out there. Go to national championships, because that's where they see you. And look for the companies that specialize in sending athletes here because they know people and who to contact. If you know what you are doing, you are going to go.

.com: What is the biggest difference between the volleyball played in the U.S. and in Brazil?
MA: Here they dig more and have better defense. My teams in Brazil always struggled with passing. The U.S. has a really fast game. If I wanted to go back to Brazil after I graduate, I would struggle a little because we have a lot of fast plays here, so I'd have to re-adapt there. It's a little different, but volleyball is volleyball.

.com: How often do you make it back to Brazil?
MA: I go every Christmas and summer, but I'm planning on staying here next summer for summer school.

.com: How often do you get to see your family?
MA: Maybe three times a year. They came here last August to help me move and they also came during spring break. The rest of my family came in January. They haven't seen me play any matches yet. My dad works, but my mom is trying to come here. She's a doctor, so she doesn't have a boss, so she can come here whenever.

.com: What do you miss the most about home?
MA: I miss the food. There's a good Brazilian place in Beverly Hills, but I can't go every week. I miss the home-cooked meals my grandma makes. I try to bring some food back after I visit. I bring back condensed milk that we have in Brazil that I use for my amazing desserts that all my teammates love. I bring a soda, Guarana. I bring different juices because we have different fruits in Brazil. I also miss my family. My comfort zone is there. My friends are there. Here I have my friends, but it's not the same because I didn't grow up with them.

.com: How quickly did you adjust to living in the U.S.?
MA: I adjusted really fast. The culture and food are close to the same. I really like American culture. I enjoy the music, I enjoy the food, I enjoy everything. So it wasn't something that was out of the blue. I had traveled a lot already and I'm open to knowing new places. I love to travel. I'd love to go to China for a month and stay there by myself. I've lived by myself since I was 16, so it's not a new thing to go to a dorm and do my own stuff. That wasn't hard. And it was really easy to make friends. The athletes here at UCLA are all together.

.com: Do you have any goals of playing in the 2016 Olympics in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil?
MA: I would love to. I graduate in 2014, so if I plan on continuing to play volleyball, I'll have to go back to Brazil to make a name for myself because I'll have been away for four years. I have a lot of contacts so it'll be easier for me to go back and make my name. It would be a dream come true playing in the Olympics. I love playing indoor and beach volleyball, but I have more experience with indoor. But if I had the opportunity to play beach volleyball that would be amazing.

.com: In the future you want to have a career in music and singing. Where did those aspirations come from?
MA: When I was three, my mom realized that I always listened to the radio and sang along to the music in a good pace. Then when I was seven, I sung the theme song from "Titanic" by Celine Dion. It was in English, so my mom didn't think I could sing it, but I did one day just like a person who spoke English would even though I didn't know what the words meant. My mom then realized that I have a talent, but she was concerned about putting me in talent shows. Everyone was pushing her because of my talent, but she was afraid it would screw my life up and I thank her for that because I know that it's a really hard world, especially for a young girl. When I was 11 or 12 there was a talent show at my school and I didn't tell my mom. When I told her I was going to be in it she was excited and I sang the song from the movie "Pocahontas" and I won. So then I started taking singing and voice lessons and sung in a choir. I decided to switch to opera when I was 14 and I've done two operas already. I stopped singing in 2008 to move to another state to just play volleyball and I was a little depressed with that because I really love music. So I started guitar lessons in 2008 to fulfill my need for music. I then realized that singing opera wasn't what made me happy. I wanted to sing pop and soul, so now I know what I want to do and I'm working on that by putting up videos on YouTube. Singing is what I want to do.

.com: What is your favorite thing to do/place to hang out in Los Angeles?
MA: I have three things. I love Hollywood. I'm in love with Hollywood. I love to walk around and that's where the entertainment happens. I think it's the center of Los Angeles. I would totally live there. I know it's kind of sketchy, but I would totally do it. Second thing is that I love the beach. I love to go to Malibu or Santa Monica and just lay down on the beach. Get a Blue Bus, go to the beach and hang out. Third Street Promenade is great, because I love shopping. And the third thing, if I have a free day, I love (amusement) parks. I love Universal Studios, Disneyland and Six Flags. Those are my three favorites. It makes me happy every time.

.com: Since starting as a freshman, what part of your game do you feel you've improved on the most?
MA: I've improved on my blocking a lot and my hitting. I'm hitting faster than I had before, I'm jumping higher than I was. Now I have both those tools and it's constant right now.

.com: What was your most exciting moment on the court here at UCLA?
MA: The win over Hawai'i. It was amazing. If I'm in a good place and enjoying everything around me, I feed off that. Hawai'i is magical and the crowd is amazing and I love big crowds. I take the energy from it and even if they are cheering against me it makes me energetic. I was excited from the first point. I had a good game and we won.

.com: What do you enjoy the most about playing volleyball?
MA: I like the feeling after you get a point. When you get a big block or you hit the ball and you crush it. It's that feeling that keeps me going. I can miss a hit, but if I hit really hard the next time then it was worth it. I love volleyball because it's a team sport but at the same time you individually can have big moments.

.com: If you didn't play volleyball, what sport would you play?
MA: Probably handball or tennis. Handball is an amazing sport, it's just not as popular here. I was really good at it. Tennis is such a beautiful sport. It's exciting and I love to watch it. I actually wanted to be a gymnast so bad and my mom wouldn't let me go on the team because I was too tall. And the reason I'm not very flexible is because she didn't let me play gymnastics and I blame her every time.

.com: How did you get the nickname `Z'?
MA: We had Mari Hole on the team, so they couldn't call me Mari and that's my nickname. Then everyone was like can I call you Mary and I said no. And then they said can we call you Brazil, but it was so cliché. So then Nikki (Casale) said there's a Z in Brazil, let's call her Z then. And everyone liked it. So everyone, not only in volleyball, but other sports and my friends call me Z. It's crazy because sometimes people don't know my name at all. But I like it, I think it's a really cool nickname.

.com: What other UCLA athletic events do you like to play?
MA: I like to go to gymnastics of course. I like to go to basketball when I can. I started going to football and I think it's really exciting, but I don't know a lot about it. I try really hard to understand but I'm kind of an annoying person when I watch football because every five minutes I ask, "What Happened? Why are people celebrating right now? He just hit the other guy, that's not a big deal. I could do that." At the same time, I think it's a smart sport, but I'm not used to it.

.com: What has been your favorite class at UCLA?
MA: Arts and Architecture was really cool. It was a really dynamic class. The teacher had a good vibe. He was always in contact with us. It wasn't a hard class, but that's not the point. I had a lot of fun in German 59. I know it's about the Holocaust, but we had (comedian) Jeffrey Ross come in and he was really funny. That was one of the highlights of the class. I like fun classes that make me study in a fun way.

.com: How many languages do you speak?
MA: Mainly I speak Portuguese and English. But I can also understand Spanish and Italian. Spanish because it's really close to Portuguese and I stayed a little bit in Chile so I know it. Italian because my voice coach was married to an Italian and she always spoke with me in Italian during the four years of coaching.

.com: Who has been the most influential person in your life?
MA: My parents, for sure. It's the way that they raised me. The values they gave me. I look up to them every day. One thing they used to say to me was, "Never forget where you came from. It doesn't matter where you are. Never forget where you came from." They are my everything. And I know he is younger than me, but he is my everything, so I have to mention my brother. Because he's my life.

Previous Thursdays With ...
Sara Sage
Katie Camp
Rachael Kidder
Kelly Reeves
Megan Moenoa
Tabi Love

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