by Chrissy Zehrbach
photography by Jenna Campbell
When softball became an Olympic sport in the 1996 Games, it gave girls a new opportunity. It was an advancement in female sports from which new stars emerged, showcasing their talents and, in the process, becoming an inspiration to younger players. Olympic glory is now something to which girls can aspire from a young age. But while many are still dreaming, there are a select group of top-caliber players who are living the glory. Among that select few are a bunch who are lucky, talented and passionate enough to stick around for more than one go-around of the Olympic Games, like La Verne native Stacey Nuveman, catcher for the United States Olympic softball team. Nuveman owns two Olympic gold medals.
“It wasn’t something that I grew up as a young girl just dreaming of. We go out to tournaments and games now and meet these young girls, and they’ll say, ‘Someday I’m gonna be on the Olympic team,’” Stacey mimics. “My generation didn’t necessarily have that until high school/college age. And from that point on, it absolutely became something I wanted to do, and something I hoped to be a part of.”
Stacey grew up in a sports-oriented family. Her father Tom played college football at Western Michigan. He never coached Stacey, but he coached her brother Ryan’s little league baseball team for seven years. Tom used to bring Stacey along to practices, starting when she was about 9 years old.
“It was his way of relating,” Stacey’s mother Susan recalls. “You know, forget the Barbie dolls and all that. He would take her to practice with him. He would have her shag balls in the outfield just to keep her busy.”
It was at these practices that Stacey’s talents were discovered. Tom soon realized that Stacey was as good as the boys on the team, if not better. “He’d come back and go, ‘She’s better than half the boys on that team,’” Susan says. So she and Tom decided to put Stacey on an organized team with La Verne Little League softball at Pelota Park. What they soon realized was that her talent exceeded even that, and better competition was warranted.
“She was so much better than these other girls,” Susan says. “They were afraid to catch the ball that she’d thrown. They’d be backing away.” Because Stacey had been practicing with the boys, Tom wanted to put her on a team where her teammates would be a little tougher. But Susan disagreed. “I said absolutely not, because she didn’t want to to begin with. I said she needs to make friends with girls.”
“That would have really stood her out because she’s taller than the boys. At that level, she would have been better than all of them,” Tom interjects, as the two talk over each other, both eager to talk about their daughter. “The thing was that she was taller than everybody else. She’s tall now, but she was really tall—like maybe seven, eight inches taller than everybody.”
So after her first season in La Verne Little League, Stacey moved across town to Golden Girls in Montclair. This was just the next step in a long line of leagues, locations, levels and teams throughout the area. Stacey became so dedicated that, soon enough, sports were consuming the Nuveman household, prompting them to give up their membership at a local country club and sell their motor home because it was no longer used.
Her little league efforts led her to storied success at St. Lucy’s Priory High School in Glendora. Stacey was a four-time first team all-league selection and a three-time all-CIF player in softball. She was also an all-state selection her junior year. Her sophomore year, St. Lucy’s took a CIF title.
As a high school athlete, she participated in not only softball, but also basketball and volleyball. “She was better known as a basketball player than a softball player,” Tom says. “She could have played big time, but not at the level she played softball. So she chose softball.”
“She far exceeded anybody talent-wise that we played with,” says Libby Ramos, University of La Verne alumna who played at St. Lucy’s as a freshman when Stacey was a senior. “Anybody we played, you didn’t see their outfielders, they were so far back. It was a game how far she hit during batting practice.”
“I was really intimidated by her,” says the petite Ramos of Stacey’s 6-foot stature. “She was four times my size, a senior and ASB President. But she’s like the nicest person. She makes you feel like you’re very welcome.”
It was during high school that Stacey encountered her first opportunity to try out for the Olympic team. She had recently played in the junior Olympics and won a gold medal. Together, her parents had decided that Tom would handle the on-field situations, and Susan would handle matters off the field. While Tom was eager for Stacey to try out, Susan had her reservations.
“When the first Olympics came by, I really questioned whether this would be a good decision for her. She would’ve had to give up being ASB President; she would have missed the prom; she would have missed the activities her senior year in high school.” In addition, Susan says, Stacey was probably going to continue playing softball at an elite level, giving her the chance to try out again in the future. “So I kind of didn’t want her to make it because I felt like she could still do both: She could get her high school experience and then do the Olympics.”
When the tryouts came along, Stacey didn’t make the team, appeasing her mom and eventually her dad. Tom admits in retrospect that it was probably better for Stacey’s maturity to sit out the first Olympics. He says when she finally did make the team she was more experienced, and “she did great, better than we ever expected. It’s all worked out for the best.”
After high school, Stacey attended UCLA, also entertaining offers from Stanford, University of Michigan, Notre Dame and University of Arizona before making her choice. A posted sign in her parent’s backyard says, “Bruins Fans Parking. All others will be crushed.”
In choosing UCLA, Stacey wanted to make sure she found a school that not only had a good softball team, but also a good academic program and social experience. “I think a lot of times, athletes especially, will look at the wrong things, and they’ll go somewhere that has a great softball team that isn’t a very impressive academic institution; and then when you leave, what do you have?” Stacey explains. “And so I wanted to walk away, and if I never played softball again after my college education, I’d have something to show for it—something that’s impressive.”
As a continuation of high school, Stacey’s on-field accolades did not stop coming when she got to UCLA. Her freshman year, she was named the Pac-10 Newcomer of the Year. She was named Pac-10 Player of the Year three times and was a First Team All-American, All-Pacific Region and All-Pac-10 every year she competed. Stacey reached the World Series each year with the Bruins, taking the national title in 1999.
“At every stage of my playing career, I tasted that victory,” Stacey says. “[UCLA] was this program that had a lot of tradition, and winning was a part of it. If you play at UCLA, you expect, in a good way, to leave with a national championship.”
Being a part of teams that have always experienced success has created a competitive edge in Stacey and a strong desire to win, a characteristic that was fostered at UCLA.
“It’s funny because when I watch sports, I always root for the underdog. I think a lot of people do. And I look at my career, and I guess fortunately, but unfortunately, I’ve never been the underdog,” Stacey says. “Sometimes it’s a curse though because then you expect to win at everything. I play air hockey with my husband, and I’m like freaking out if he’s beating me because winning has totally become a habit.”
Leaving a lasting impression on collegiate softball, Stacey finished her career at UCLA as the NCAA all-time career home run (90) and slugging percentage (.945) leader, a title she still holds. Stacey took two redshirt seasons from UCLA. The second of which came in 2000, when the Olympics rolled around again.
After winning golds in both 2000 and 2004, she is still awed by the fact that she has two Olympic competitions under her belt, and two gold medals to show for it.
“Literally, I still get the chills just thinking about it and talking about it because it’s something that is so beyond my world. All of us get caught up in what we’re doing and what we’re into,” Stacey says. “It’s always a big deal when I stop and step away from it and look at really what it represents and how much history is in just that one event: the Olympic Games; that I’m a very small part of it is overwhelming.”
Comparing her experiences in 2000 and 2004, Stacey says the two were “almost polar opposites.” This summer in Athens, the U.S. team was untouchable, going undefeated and outscoring its opponents, 51-1. The Dream Team was not scored on until the final game. Stacey hit .313 with a .688 slugging percentage and five home runs.
“As a team, we struggled in 2000. We lost three games, we almost didn’t get a medal at all. It was just more of a stressful tournament. We just scrapped it out, really tooth and nail,” Stacey says. But in between 2000 and 2004, the team adopted a new resolve. “That’s really why we played awesome. Across the board, everybody on the team played well; everybody contributed. I don’t want to say we breezed through, but it looked like we breezed through.”
At each Olympic contest, Stacey has had her family there to support her. “Team Nuveman” as Susan put it, consisted of only three members this year: Susan, Tom and Stacey’s husband. But the first year, 11 friends and family traveled to Sydney to support her. Susan says what she felt overall was the pride to see her daughter compete in the Olympics.
“To see your child reach the highest pinnacle of anything—if it’s concert pianist or if it’s an art contest—just to see that they achieved something that they really have worked hard for is such a pride-filled thing, it’s amazing,” Susan says.
But back home from the Olympics, softball becomes a full-time job. The Olympic year is by far the most intense, Stacey says. But each year is filled with training camps and tryouts and tournaments, and games with a new national team. Most official practices are held at the Olympic training center located in Chula Vista.
Although her parents still reside in La Verne, Stacey recently married and is living in Visalia, Calif., where she finds it harder to train. “I don’t have my teammates around me, and I have to get myself motivated to go out to the gym, and to go out to the field and the batting cages and all these things,” Stacey explains. “So sometimes you have to remind yourself, look at a Sports Illustrated cover—this is why I do what I do. Those are the small little gratification pieces for the hard work. And it’s a lot of fun too. It’s a lot of work, but it’s a lot of play, so I can’t complain.”
The August 30, 2004, issue of Sports Illustrated is lying on an end table near the couch of Stacey’s tidy home—slightly worn from attention—but being preserved all the same. It features the team members with their medals. “It was quite an adjustment for her [to move]. She was training at least four days a week with Lisa Fernandez and three or four other girls on the softball team right here at Cal State Fullerton. She had a built-in workout regimen; she and her brother bought a house right here in Rancho Cucamonga. She was in a pretty good spot, but she fell madly in love,” Susan says. Her husband Mark Deniz, whose last name they have agreed she’ll take two years after her last Olympics, is from Chino. Oddly enough, they met at the airport in San Jose while traveling. After their New Year’s Eve wedding, the two moved to Visalia where Mark had accepted a job with the district attorney. While Visalia is not where they hope to end up, the city is growing on them and surely has welcomed Stacey.
A banner proclaiming “Congratulations on Your Gold Metal Victory” (spelling error included) was put up at her house as a welcome home from Athens banner, and Nov. 10 was declared Stacey Nuveman Day in Visalia. She says the city is a little like La Verne in the fact that people think it is a lot smaller than it really is. Stacey has settled into her new life in the sprawling development of white-picket-fenced houses, but she would like to eventually return to her La Verne roots.
“At this point in our lives, our goal is to end up in La Verne again. If you had asked me that when I was a teenager if that’s where I’d want to ultimately be, I’d be like, ‘You’re crazy,’ but to me it had like all of the features of really the ideal childhood.” Stacey reminisces. She remembers that as a child she could walk to get ice cream in the summer and visit the local pool, which was referred to as “the plunge.”
“It was like Cleaver-ish almost. We had our little AYSO soccer and our little league softball and baseball and it just was awesome. I would hope nothing more than to have my kids have the same experience.”
In La Verne, Stacey is a hometown hero. There is a display in her honor at the Round Table Pizza on Foothill Boulevard. And each time she has returned from the Olympics, her parents host a party in her honor. For this humble girl, who keeps her gold medals in her sock drawer because they’re easier to access that way, the attention is appreciated, but it is a little overwhelming to realize the public figure she has become.
“In 2000 they did this big ol’ banner over downtown La Verne and it’s kinda like ‘oh gosh,’” Stacey sighs, placing her hands over her eyes.
“I’ve never heard anything bad said about her. She’s a very well-liked person and well-respected for what she does. You don’t hear that about a lot of people,” Ramos says.
In addition to continuing to train, Stacey has recently found herself as a national broadcaster. She has been a commentator for ESPN the last two NCAA Division I Softball College World Series. She had the chance to do this the first time when there was a miscommunication and ESPN needed someone last minute, she says. She had a little experience doing basketball games on the radio for UCLA but admits she was not prepared. “I was more nervous for that than anything I’ve ever done on the field. I mean just totally out of my comfort zone,” she says. ESPN asked her back for the 2004 tournament coverage.
“My ultimate beyond-softball goal is to make broadcasting more of a permanent thing, branching into other sports, whether its women’s basketball again or baseball or even football,” she says. “I’m not Jillian Barberie or anything, but these women that do sideline reporting? Oh my God. I mean they’re cute, maybe, but other than that, their knowledge of sports is embarrassing.”
For now, she will be setting down the microphone and relifting the torch, for Stacey’s Olympic quest is not quite finished. She’s still hungry for more competition and another medal: “Beijing in ’08 is definitely where I hope to be.” But with the idea that the IOC may not bring softball back after 2008, the future is vague.
“We are fighting to keep the game in. The problem we face is that softball is not a big sport worldwide. And there’s a lot of sports that aren’t in the Olympics that want to be: rugby, golf; softball’s one of the ones they’ve talked about taking out.” She says that softball is targeted because the United States is so dominant. “That’s a hard one for us to swallow. How can you be punished for being good at something?”
But it takes a two-thirds vote to remove a sport from the Olympics. “Everything we’ve heard has been positive,” Stacey says. “They really believe it would be hard to get two-thirds of the world to vote us out. Maybe a third, but not two thirds. So we’ll see.”