Spiking the Problems : Top Female Volleyball Team Doesn't Speak the Same Language, Except When on Court

In a tight match, Patty Dodd will keep a close eye on her partner, Jackie Silva. Although considered by most the world's best female beach volleyball player, Silva doesn't like to cut it too fine.

" Stai con me !" Dodd will say when she sees Silva starting to boil over. Or she'll shout, " Stiamo insieme !" And Silva will grin and her head will be back in the game.

When Dodd and Silva decided to play together this summer after winning an off-season tournament in Florida on Super Bowl Sunday, it was expected they would communicate well since both are from Latin America. Dodd, who was born Patricia Orozco, is from Colombia. Silva is Brazilian.

So why, when Dodd wants to tell her partner "Stay with me" or "Stay together," does she say it in Italian ?

"Jackie and I don't really speak the same language," said Dodd, who will play with Silva this weekend in the Hermosa Beach Open. "I speak little Portuguese, which is Jackie's language, and she doesn't speak my Spanish. So Italian is a middle ground."

Since Silva is still learning English and is uncomfortable with the language under pressure, both players reached back to their days of playing indoor volleyball in Italy for on-court communication.

It must be working. Silva and Dodd have won seven of eight tournaments on this year's women's pro tour. And with the exception of a disastrous weekend in Cleveland, where the duo lost twice and finished fourth, they are unbeaten.

"I like playing with Patty because she doesn't make mistakes," said Silva, who speaks deliberately, but well, in English veiled with a heavy accent. "I think playing with me can be good, but it can be horrible. So Patty's really nice. She keeps me relaxed. Comfortable."

Comfort seems to have had a lot to do with Silva's decision to change partners after last season. It's not like she needed to. Silva and Linda Chisholm, a 6-foot-2 silver medalist on the 1984 U.S. Olympic team, had won 18 of 20 tournaments in their two years playing together.

But change she did. And the result has been an improvement, according to Kathy Gregory, former volleyball great and television volleyball commentator.

"I think (Silva) is the best player on the women's pro circuit for sure," said Gregory, who retired from the tour last season after more than 20 years as a player. "The reason is she has no weaknesses in her game. She's the No. 1 best setter on the beach. She's probably the quickest player on the circuit, she brought the jump-serve to the game and she's just a great hitter."

That left opposing teams looking to Dodd for a weakness. So they served her. "They had to test her," Gregory said, "but she's proven she can sustain the pressure. She's a better passer than Jackie. Plus, defensively, they're the two quickest players that have ever played together."

Add to that formula their youth--Dodd is 25 and Silva 27--and you have the makings of a dynasty, Gregory said. But even though Dodd is quicker and younger than Chisholm, the team of Silva and Chisholm had no real weaknesses either, according to Gregory.

"It was hard on Linda," Gregory said. "It was like being jilted."

The partnership dissolved in a turn of events that Dodd likens to a "soap opera." It began in 1986 when two newcomers to the women's pro tour--Dodd and Silva--teamed up for the World Championship tournament in Pismo Beach. They were relatively new to the beach game and rough around the edges.

Still, Dodd and Silva beat the top team at the time, Linda Robertson and Nina Matthies, to earn a place in the finals. They ended up with a second, losing to Gregory and Janice Opalinski. It seemed like the start of something big.

But it was not to be--yet.

"That day still stays so clear in my mind," said Dodd, recalling the afternoon in 1987 that destroyed her next two seasons on the beach. "It was mid-April and I was down at the beach and Jackie just showed up. We hadn't discussed what we were going to do and I didn't even know she was back in the country. But she asked me if I wanted to play in the summer.

"And I said no . I was already committed to play with Dale Hall."

Silva then teamed with Chisholm and went on to greatness while Dodd and Hall, another of Dodd's 1986 partners, remained back in the pack.

Ironically, Dodd's only highlights in 1987 and 1988 came when she was teamed with Silva for two tournaments in 1988 that Chisholm could not attend. They won both.

After the end of the 1988 season, Silva did another vanishing act. She was playing winter ball in Italy in the weeks before the now-famous January tournament in Miami, prompting Chisholm to find another partner. And when Silva unexpectedly showed up in time for the event, only to find her partner teamed with Opalinski, she picked up Dodd for what appeared to be a temporary arrangement.

Silva and Dodd beat Chisholm and Opalinski in the tournament final.

What followed was a mad scramble, Dodd said. "After Miami, because we beat Linda, everyone started talking: 'Oh, I'll bet Patty and Jackie will play together now.' Everyone was calling everyone else."

Finally, Silva asked Dodd to be her partner in 1989.

"When she asked me I was really excited," Dodd said. "But I was also saying, 'Are you sure? You've got to think about Linda, too.' "

The news was devastating for Chisholm, who has yet to return to form this year playing with Opalinski.

"When she told me, I was speechless. I practically threw up," Chisholm said. "It's like hearing your husband or your boyfriend is cheating on you. It's hard to break up a winning combination. I was in shock."

Silva suggested to Chisholm that the parity resulting from her changing of partners would be good for the Women's Professional Volleyball Assn.--a factor Silva also hinted at during an interview.

"I think Linda and I played very well together and Linda is a very good player," she said. "But the association, we want to keep everybody together and (dropping Chisholm for Dodd) is best for the players and the association."

Because few players could see a clear motive for Silva's decision to break up a winning team, stories began to circulate.

"They would say, 'Jackie's crazy. I can't believe she dropped Linda. What did Patty do to get her?' " Dodd said. "The rumors got ugly. People were saying I bought her.

"Sometimes I think back and think it's great all those rumors were out there, because they made me train harder. They made me want to win more."

The real reason Silva switched, everyone seems to agree, is that she felt more comfortable playing with Dodd.

Being a stranger in a strange land was difficult for Silva. And Dodd could relate, having made the move from Colombia to the U.S. nine years ago, a teen-ager who could speak no English.

"I think a lot of the reason Jackie chose me is that I can understand the difficulties of being a foreigner in the United States," said Dodd, who teaches bilingual education in the Lennox area. "I've had to get my green card, my work permit, my visa and all that. And I know what it's like to learn English, so I don't make fun of her. I don't laugh when, to others, it's hilarious that she's messing up her English."

Chisholm, who says she was preoccupied with wedding plans last season and didn't spend enough time with her partner, acknowledges she could have been more of a friend to Silva. "A lot of it was my fault," she said. "I could have helped her more."

Instead, Silva is now a regular visitor to the comfortable El Segundo home that Dodd shares with her husband, volleyball star Mike Dodd, and two basenji dogs. And according to Dodd, the teammates talk on a daily basis.

"Now it's good because we have fun inside the court and outside the court," said Silva, who is living in Lawndale. "Patty and I can be together a long time."

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