Santa Barbara Olympians hit Rio

KCRW checks in with five Olympians as they prep for their big moment

A week before the opening ceremony of the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janiero, over a dozen Santa Barbara athletes were training at home tracks, alma mater pools and garages converted into gyms.

KCRW caught up with five of them.

Nicholas Scarvelis: Shot put

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Scarvelis trains in his garage in Goleta. “Lots of good memories here. Lot of sweat. Before heading out to Rio, it’s a good luck thing.”

Athletes give it their all at the Olympics. Some athletes, like Scarvelis, even change their citizenship.

“I received a Facebook message from someone I didn’t know. It said ‘Good morning. Would you like to fight with the Greek National Team?'”

Last summer he went to Greece to receive his citizenship papers. “You realize you’re doing it when your uncle Niko takes you to a psarotavérna (fish tavern) right on the Aegean Sea. This is why you do athletics in the first place, to have these kind of connections. The fact that it’s for the Greek team, where all my family is from, that only makes it more special.”

Barbara Nwaba: Heptathlon

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“At first, I was just really tired,” said Nwaba about the moment she qualified at an Olympic trial in Oregon this June. She started doing track in 4th grade, but it wasn’t until her sophomore year at UCSB that she was introduced to the heptathlon (a combination of seven track and field events, including hurdles, high jump, long jump, javelin, shot put and running). 

“It’s never boring. If one thing’s not working out, I always have another thing I can work on.”

She said the track and field culture is coming back to Santa Barbara with the Santa Barbara Track Club and Youth Club.

You can find the Olympic Heptathlon schedule here.

Karch Kiraly: Women’s Volleyball Coach

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“By the time I was playing on East Beach, at around 14 or 15 years old, I was having dreams of playing in world class events,” said Kiraly. That’s when he was starting out at Santa Barbara High School, where his coach, Rick Olmsted, taught him the importance of preparation.

“There’s nothing to look back on with doubt, regret or lack of certainty.”

Fifty years later (and three Olympic gold medals of his own), he’s now ready to focus on creating a team that adds up to more than the sum of its parts. “There’s great power in that.”

You can find the Olympic Volleyball schedule here.

Kiley Neushal: Women’s Water Polo

Stanford, CA; Sunday February 1, 2015; Women's Water Polo, Stanford vs San Jose State
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“There’s an aquatic culture in Santa Barbara,” said Neushal, one of four Santa Barbara locals on the Olympic Women’s Water Polo Team. “Once you get hooked, you play like you’re family.” She played at Dos Pueblos High School and with the 805 Water Polo Club before heading to play for Stanford.

Advice for young players? “Compete at every practice. Compete in every drill at every practice. Also, dream big.”

You can find the Olympic Water Polo schedule here.

Carlos Balderas: Men’s Boxing

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A first generation American, 19-year-old Balderas grew up in Santa Maria. His father, Zenon, took him to a boxing gym when he was seven years old, because he was fighting in the streets and getting suspended from school. Now, he’s trying to put U.S. Boxing back on the medal stand.

“I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for my family,” said Balderas. “I’m finally giving them something. Bringing back a gold medal would change their lives, and open doors to people in my gym.”

Balderas knows Santa Maria doesn’t have a great reputation. He grew up around gangs as a kid.

“A lot of people in Santa Maria have never been able to travel. Maybe if they did, they’d realize it’s not always about being in the hood or representing some blood. You can do something big, like me, and represent the USA.”

You can find the Olympic Boxing schedule here.