(Photo by Mark Philbrick/BYU Photo)
Standing in a seemingly endless line for over four hours would be tiring for anyone in any situation. For Joel Silva it was no different, except he was in line with thousands of the world’s greatest athletes, waiting to enter National Stadium for the Opening Ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.
“It was so tiring waiting outside, but as we were about to go in we forget all about that,” says Silva, junior libero of the BYU men’s volleyball team. “When you finally get into the stadium and walk around the track, people from around the world are watching you. It’s just amazing. It was the best ever.”
Growing up in San Fernando de Apure, Venezuela, Silva was always a fan of the Olympic games, seeing as he played soccer, baseball and basketball. However, the thought never crossed his mind that he would one day be on Olympian himself, much less for a sport he thought be to at the time, “A girl’s sport.”
“I didn’t like volleyball at all,” he recalls. “I saw it as a woman’s sport. I was a baseball player.”
All that changed when Silva was 12 years old. His teacher at the time agreed to add additional points onto each students’ grade for every extra-curricular sport he or she agreed to participate in.
“She would give you two points for each sport,” Silva explains. “I wanted to get a lot of points. I was asked to play men’s volleyball and after I started, I liked it. I switched from baseball to volleyball.”
Silva’s early days as a volleyball player were spent frightened of the one element he had learned to master in all the other sports he enjoyed—the ball.
“I remember I was scared of the ball,” he says. “When someone would be serving I was so scared I couldn’t even pass. I was always hoping they wouldn’t serve it to me. Now I’m the libero–the guy who’s in charge of taking all the passes.”
Silva’s fear of the ball subsided over the two years he spent playing with the state team, and at the age of 14 he was invited to play with the Venezuela National Boys Volleyball Team. After playing with the Boys Team for four years, Silva advanced to the Junior National Team where he spent the next two years until the age of 20.
“I spent six years playing, taking every step necessary to play with the Senior Team,” he says. “In 2005 I was invited to practice with the Senior Team and I did well, so they asked me to play.”
Playing for the Senior Men’s National Volleyball Team is no small feat in Venezuela. Out of the 24 other players who joined the Boys Team with Silva in 2000, he remains the only one currently on the Senior roster.
“Playing on the Boys Team or the Junior Team is a lot different than the Senior Team,” says Silva. ”It’s a different level of play. To get on the Senior Team is really hard. Some of the players have been on the team for many years. If you want to take a spot from someone who is already on the team, you either have to be really good, or someone has to retire.”
By this point in Silva’s life, he had graduated from high school and was debating whether to further pursue volleyball, or opt for a college education instead. While in Venezuela it is nearly impossible to do both, Silva saw coming to the United States as his only option.
While playing with his national team at the 2006 World Championships in Japan, Silva met Ryan Millar, a middle blocker for the U.S. National Volleyball Team, who had plans to become co-interim head coach at Brigham Young University that upcoming fall. Silva’s team successfully defeated the Americans in tournament play, a move which helped solidify Silva’s talent to Millar and his associates at BYU.
“I talked with Ryan about BYU and he offered me a scholarship,” recalls Silva. “I guess those World Championships were kind of like my tryout. We beat the United States, and then Ryan said, ‘Okay, you’re coming with us.’ I also had a lot of contact with Shawn Patchell, the other volleyball coach at BYU.”
Upon his arrival on campus, Silva saw noticeable differences to the culture, weather and lifestyle he was used to back home in Venezuela. He soon realized some adjustments would need to be made.
“One of the hardest things for me to learn after coming here to the United States was being on time,” says Silva. “In Venezuela someone might say, ‘Okay, let’s meet here at 3 p.m.,’ and if you get there at 3:15 nobody is there. The meeting won’t start until 4 or 4:30. I remember coming to BYU and we would have practice at 7 a.m. I would wake up at 6:55 and be at practice at 7:30. I was late all the time. It was hard for me to adjust to that. I’ve got it now—almost.”
Learning to be on time was one of many lessons Silva learned after coming to Provo. During his freshman season, he played in 28 matches for a Cougar team that ended the season with a No. 4 national ranking.
In January 2008 Silva rejoined his Venezuelan teammates for the South American Olympic Qualification Tournament in Argentina. With volleyball’s immense popularity in Venezuela, Silva and his teammates could feel the tremendous pressure for them to clinch an Olympic berth. The team was victorious after defeating rival Argentina in a five-set final match, qualifying for the Summer Olympics for the first time in its country’s history.
“It’s hard, really hard to play volleyball in Venezuela because it’s such a big sport,” he says. “We have a lot of fans. Volleyball is all over the news and television. People are always expecting you to do well. There is a lot of pressure because you know you have to win.”
Once in Beijing, Silva relished the opportunities to meet fellow athletes from around the world, including record-breaking swimmer Michael Phelps and members of the USA Men’s Basketball Team.
“It was awesome to be there in China with all the athletes, spending time with them, eating at the same place, and seeing them all around,” Silva says. “I really like Michael Phelps. He’s the best. I had a chance to talk with him a few times. I like that guy because he’s not cocky. He’s just a nice guy who’s a great athlete.”
The Venezuelan team failed to advance to the Olympic quarterfinals after falling to China, Italy, Bulgaria and eventual gold-medal winning USA, a team which included Silva’s friend and former coach, Millar.
“It was awesome playing against Ryan [Millar],” recalls Silva. “He knows where my weaknesses are and I know where he tends to hit the ball when he serves. The U.S. team was playing really well. It was a five-game match, but they won.”
With the close of the Olympics came the end of the summer and the beginning of a new fall semester at BYU. The Cougars have a young team after losing several players due to graduation at the close of the 2008 season. Despite this, Silva is anxious to play with his teammates again and hopefully qualify for the NCAA National Championships, which BYU will host this May.
“That’s big motivation for us,” he says. “We have a really young team this year, but we know anytime we play at home we have a big advantage. We just need to play our best to get into that Final Four and qualify. If we get into the Final Four that will put us in a great spot to win the championship.”
Silva’s play this year will only help prepare him for the future, a future in which he hopes to compete in the next two Olympic games. Volleyball is far from over for this young man, but once that day comes, he’ll be ready for it.
“I will probably go back home to Venezuela,” he says. “I’m studying business here at BYU, so I want to go back and have my own business. That will be good for me after volleyball.”