When Vladimir Morozov left Siberia for Los Angeles as a 14-year-old, his English was limited to one sentence.
"It was very hard," Morozov recalled this week. "I could say, 'My name is Vlad and I swim.'"
Well, swim he does.
And after a year and a half in the States, Morozov was speaking fluent English. Swimming earned him an athletic scholarship to the University of Southern California, where he swept the NCAA sprint titles this year.
Those titles came after Morozov won the 50- and 100-meter freestyle races at the short-course world championships in Istanbul at the end of last year.
On Thursday, Morozov introduced himself to the full international swimming community with one of the quickest starts in the 100 free at the long-course worlds. He sliced through the opening lap in 21.94 seconds — becoming the first swimmer wearing a textile suit to make the turn in under 22 seconds.
He finished fifth in the 100, but the impressive start makes him an outside favorite for the 50 free final on Saturday.
"I like that one lap better than two laps," Morozov said after qualifying sixth for the 50 final in 21.63.
Anthony Ervin, the American veteran who qualified second for the 50 behind Olympic champion Florent Manaudou of France, sees similarities in Morozov.
"Since I started watching him race last year, I thought he kind of had a similar technique as me," Ervin said. "Just really quick, really high on the water, high rates, but a good flow. He doesn't move a lot of water, he's able to cut the water and go over on top of it.
At 5-foot-11, Morozov is small for a sprinter.
"I think he's the one guy out there who's smaller than me," Ervin said. "He's incredible. He's definitely going to be a guy to watch."
Morozov might have been a teammate of Ervin's, but he couldn't get his citizenship in time for last year's London Games.
"And my main goal was just to compete at the Olympics," he said. "I didn't care which country it was."
So the Russian team was his only option. But he didn't know anyone in the Russian swimming federation. That's because when he emigrated as an adolescent, he hadn't yet competed on the national level.
"So no one knew me and I knew no one," Morozov said. "I asked if it was possible to email or Skype and we started talking and made the deal that I would come over and try out for the team. That's when I came over and made the Shanghai (2011 worlds) relay."
Now, he splits his training time between USC with U.S. coach Dave Salo and Russia, under renowned coach Viktor Advienko.
"He's an outstanding competitor," Salo said. "He's quick off the blocks and he has shown that he's much more than a college-yard swimmer."
Morozov profits from top quality competition and physical training at USC. But said he gets "all my technique tips" from Advienko.
He described himself as a Russian at heart with the mentality of an American.
"I can speak in English and I can joke around like Russian athletes wouldn't do," Morozov said. "They're more closed in. I think it's more because of the fear. They only take one event and concentrate on that because they're afraid of failing."
Morozov began as a backstroker, and he still competes in the discipline.
However, it's his freestyle that's earned him comparisons to retired Russian sprinting great Alexander Popov.
"I'm definitely not a swimmer like Popov," Morozov said. "He was 2 meters tall, he had a completely different technique. He swam with a straight arm. I'm more explosive. ... We're definitely two different swimmers."
Morozov already helped Russia to a bronze medal in the 4x100 free relay on the opening night of this meet. Another medal would be a bonus after also swimming in the World University Games last month in Kazan, Russia, where he won four golds.
"For me, it's not difficult to carry the form over," Morozov said. "I've done it twice this season already with Europeans and short-course worlds and NCAA champs, then my trials. So it's the third time. I'm kind of used to this whole thing."