O.C.’s Female Athletes Stand Tall Above the Rest


The Angels were a disaster from start to finish.

The Mighty Ducks, while providing moments of enthusiastic overachieving, were issued a quick and desultory drubbing in the playoffs.

The UC Irvine and Cal State Fullerton basketball teams were nothing but bad, and even when Fullerton’s baseball team made it to the College World Series it was only after four of its players were arrested after a childish prank while in Indiana for an NCAA regional.

But you know what?

So what.

While Orange County men and their teams have not provided us with much to cheer about lately, local female athletes boosted their achievements to unprecedented heights.


From tiny figure skater Naomi

Nari Nam and her electrifying arrival on the national scene to Lindsay Davenport and her nerveless conquering of Steffi Graf for her first Wimbledon title.

From Julie Foudy, Joy Fawcett and Tisha Venturini being integral parts of the U.S. women’s soccer World Cup championship team to golfer Kellee Booth, who not only qualified for the LPGA tour through the stomach-churning tenseness of the qualifying tournament but also was the medalist.

How does this happen? How is it female athletes from Orange County seem suddenly to be stars in so many different arenas?

“You know,” says Foudy, who grew up in Mission Viejo, “I didn’t know how good I had it growing up until I started meeting some of the soccer players from other places.

“Girls, even girls like Mia Hamm, would talk about how there were no women’s teams for them to play on and how they had to try out for the men’s team. I guess we’re spoiled out here. We have great facilities, great weather and, at least in my case, supportive parents who didn’t treat me any differently from my brothers.”

As the benefits of Title IX, the 1972 law that decreed colleges must treat male and female athletes equally, have helped propel women’s athletics, the girls have been able to take advantage of yearlong perfect weather, pristine fields and excellent coaching to thrive in sports in which women are receiving more and more college scholarship money.


Sports such as soccer, volleyball, softball, golf and tennis as well as basketball.

California has also always been trend-setting in many ways, so, as Foudy says, parents in Southern California have been less resistant to allowing their little girls play sports just as the little boys do. “Let’s face it,” Foudy says. “Growing up in Mission Viejo, boy or girl, it was hard not to play sports.”

Indoors or outdoors hasn’t mattered. Orange County women are popping up everywhere, winning individual titles or leading teams to unprecedented victories.

And setting the standard early this year was the smallest, a tiny figure skater who refused to quit.


In February, when the 13-year-old Nam, daughter of an Irvine engineer who was given a love of the ice by her Korean speed-skating grandfather, arrived in Salt Lake City for the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, she was an unknown curiosity. She left as the silver medalist, standing on the awards podium looking up at her idol, gold-medalist Michelle Kwan, and looking forward to a future that might very well include the 2002 Olympics.

Nam won over the crowds with her breathtaking spins and her courage. In her short program, the portion of the competition in which skaters must complete required elements, Nam, barely 4 feet 9 inches tall, fell. Her tiny head hit the ice so hard it bounced. Nam stood, dazed and in pain. She remained still for a second, then resumed skating. The crowd gasped as Nam finished her routine before she cried and then rose for a standing ovation. The stunned skater, holding the quickly sprouting bump on her head, wiped away tears and skated toward her coach, John Nicks. Then Nam came back two nights later to skate a flawless long program and move from fourth to second. It was a result that should have qualified Nam for the world championships.

Except that Nam is too young--by three years--for that honor.

On that same afternoon another tiny skater who practiced with Nam at the Ice Chalet in Costa Mesa, Sasha Cohen of Laguna Niguel, finished second in the junior national championships. Cohen won the Pacific Coast sectional qualifier in the senior division last week and will join Nam in Cleveland this February at the U.S. championships.



In March, Nicole Erickson, a fifth-year senior, led Duke to a stunning upset over heavy favorite Tennessee in an NCAA regional final for its first Final Four appearance. Duke advanced to the championship game before losing to Purdue in a poignant game for Erickson.

The irony did not escape Erickson as the fifth-year senior stood on the court before the national semifinal and saw her old coach, Lin Dunn, sitting teary-eyed in the stands.

Erickson was perhaps the first big-name recruit from Brea Olinda High, one of the state’s premier programs, and chose to attend Purdue. Having established herself as a starter and double-figures scorer as a sophomore, Erickson was stunned when Boilermaker coach Dunn was suddenly fired. Disillusioned by the development, Erickson transferred to Duke. After sitting out a year because of the NCAA-mandated transfer rule, Erickson’s return to the court coincided with Duke’s rise to national prominence.

It had been an emotional decision for Erickson to leave Purdue and a bittersweet coincidence when the Duke women’s team arrived in its first national title game to face a Purdue team that Erickson had left in despair. “In my dreams, we make it to the finals and play Purdue,” Erickson said before Duke beat Georgia and Purdue beat Louisiana Tech in the semifinals. “I just knew this would happen. I went through so much to get to this point.

“I felt so betrayed by what happened to coach Dunn and to see her here means a lot to me.”

The perfect ending for Erickson didn’t happen. Purdue beat the Blue Devils in the championship game, 62-45. But Erickson knew afterward she had been part of something special. “I feel like I helped Duke accomplish something big,” Erickson said. “I’m glad Coach Dunn was here to see it.”


A stranger watching UCLA softball phenom Amanda Freed would never have guessed that the slightly built, quiet woman standing by herself was able to make a softball turn into an unhittable blur. Freed took a big reputation and high expectations from Pacifica High to UCLA and lived up to everything people said about her.


Freed, from Cypress, was the nation’s best freshman softball player while helping lead UCLA to a national title. If she wasn’t pitching--Freed had a 24-4 record on the mound--she played flawlessly in the field and hit .362. She has been named as an alternate on the U.S. national team that will go to the Olympics in Sidney before her sophomore season starts.

UCLA Coach Sue Enqvist paid tribute to her by saying Freed had arrived as the nation’s most highly recruited player and “she lived up to all the hype and all the expectations. That’s not very easy.”


The U.S. women’s soccer team, recently chosen as Sports Illustrated’s Sportswomen of the Year, captured the nation’s attention not only with its victories but also with its guileless charm and unabashed enjoyment of the entire experience.

It was Foudy who embodied that ebullience in the World Cup opener. Having scored against Denmark in sold-out Giants Stadium in New Jersey, Foudy broke into a goofy dance, copying a step from Austin Powers, the hit film of the early summer.

These women were under pressure to win, were expected to win, had to win the Cup in order to sell their sport and sell this country on the idea that women’s sports could be just as exciting as men’s, and Foudy did her little spoof on the biggest stage a female athlete could have because, “Well,” Foudy said, “because I just felt like it.” Who could not want to watch this team from beginning to end?

Fawcett, who grew up in Huntington Beach and lives in Rancho Santa Margarita, was a fierce defender and tireless worker. She was also much more. She was one of two mothers on the team (Carla Overbeck was the other). Fawcett, 31, has two daughters, Katey and Carli, and she has improvised for the past five years, juggling soccer with her family. Fawcett and Overbeck even persuaded USA Soccer to provide a traveling nanny when the team toured the U.S. to promote the World Cup.


Even now, six months after the U.S. women defeated China in the final, 5-4 on penalty kicks after a scoreless tie, Fawcett says strangers come up to her. “They tell me what I’ve meant to them and that they admire what I’ve done,” Fawcett says. “I’m happy if I’ve shown other girls that you can have a family and be an athlete too.”

Venturini moved to Newport Beach two years ago and says she is the awe-struck one when she runs on the beach in the morning and people open up their windows and shout to her. That’s the effect this women’s team has had.


She is shy and modest and shrinks from the spotlight, sometimes overwhelmed by the attention that has come to her. But Fountain Valley High graduate Candie Kung, a native of Taiwan who has played golf for only five years, has done nothing but draw attention to herself this year with her golf prowess.

Kung won six junior golf tournaments and was chosen American Junior Golf Assn. player of the year. As a USC freshman this fall, Kung finished ranked No. 6 nationally and led the Trojans with a 72.7 stroke average. In her first collegiate tournament, Kung recorded a 54-hole total of 214, a school record for a freshman in a debut event.

USC finished the fall season ranked No. 3 in the country. The team’s future is as bright as Kung’s.


All her life Booth, 23, of Coto de Caza, has played golf. Her parents are avid golfers (her mother was a talented amateur) and Booth has always had a love of the game, of the great feel that comes from a perfectly struck drive or a well-placed chip shot.


After a summer honing her game on the amateur circuit, Booth is eager to storm the LPGA tour. Ready to turn pro, Booth went to the LPGA qualifier in Daytona Beach, Fla., quietly confident. The top 19 finishers would earn LPGA cards and Booth expected to get one.

She did not expect to put together four rounds of 70 and win the tournament. “That was a bonus,” Booth said. She did not have to experience the nerve-racking scoreboard watching and tallying of others’ scores. “I was pretty consistent,” Booth said. “I really never had to get that nervous.”

Next up? Life as a tour pro. Stay tuned.


As the Duchess of Kent kissed her cheeks and whispered in her ear, Davenport couldn’t stop grinning. Here she was, standing on the most hallowed tennis court in the world, Centre Court at Wimbledon, and she was champion.

Too sweet to say “I told you so,” Davenport couldn’t help thinking about all the people who had belittled her talent and her commitment to the game, who had, to be blunt, called her fat when Davenport, 6 feet 2, had a teenager’s love of fast food, of greasy fries and rich milk shakes. But at her own pace, and driven by her own desires, Davenport had grown up, had pushed herself into a physical fitness program and had conquered her insecurities. She had made herself a champion, winning an event she never thought she would win.

Davenport had captured, finally, her first Grand Slam tournament in 1998 at the U.S. Open. It has always been her favorite tournament, in her country on her favorite hardcourt surface.

But the Newport Beach resident has never been comfortable on Wimbledon’s slippery grass. “For a long time,” Davenport said, “I didn’t think I could do well on grass.”


Filled with confidence after finally winning a Grand Slam event, Davenport spent a quiet Wimbledon just winning. While news was made by top-seeded Martina Hingis’ first-round meltdown, the revelation that former NBA star Julius Erving was the father of 18-year-old qualifier Alexandra Stevenson of San Diego, and a riveting quarterfinal match between Graf and Venus Williams, Davenport happily arrived in the final.

Playing fearlessly, even after a rain delay, Davenport shrieked in stunned amazement after her straight-set victory over Graf.

And Davenport finished the 11-month season by winning the Chase Championships in New York over a chastened Hingis, who finished ranked No. 1 to Davenport’s No. 2. But Hingis said after her loss she thought Davenport was the best right now.

Something Orange County women have been hearing a lot recently.


* OC2000

Outstanding athletes put the county on the sports map. B1


Diane Pucin is a Times sports columnist. She can be reached at