7:11pm

Mon May 7, 2012
London 2012: The Summer Olympics

Soccer Star With Soap Opera Roots Aims At Olympics

Originally published on Fri August 2, 2013 4:34 pm

Indiana University soccer star Orianica Velasquez is on a mission — to get to the London Olympics with Colombia's women's soccer team. And she wants to send a message about the country where she was born.

"My dream is to get a medal for Colombia," she says, adding that she wants to show the world "it's just not violence, it's just not drugs — we can play soccer and we can do great things because we have great people there."

The coach of the Colombian women's team, Ricardo Rozo, says he didn't discover Velasquez's raw athletic talent on the field — he discovered it on TV. She was playing a teen in a soap opera about soccer. The program, Juego Limpio, or Fair Play, embodies the spirit of soccer for many Colombian fans.

Rozo recruited Velasquez away from the show to play for the Colombian women's team, and then Indiana coach Mick Lyon brought her to the U.S.

"She's a good forward because she's greedy," Lyon says. "And that's what you ask for your forwards to be — go to goal with the belief that you are going to score or create a chance."

Lyon helped Velasquez learn English and fight off homesickness for a family and culture 2,000 miles away.

Velasquez represented Colombia at the Women's World Cup in 2011. A couple of weeks ago, she played one of the last matches of her junior year at Indiana.

Players slid across the muddy, rain-soaked U-School Field. It wasn't an easy day to play soccer, but that didn't keep Velasquez from hunting down the ball. She scored one goal, then another. Ultimately, IU didn't win, but Velasquez moved with intuition and power.

Today, she lives in a quiet, sparsely decorated apartment. Christmas decorations still hang in the living room. In the bedroom, she has keepsakes, like the purple soccer cleats she used in the World Cup and her retired jerseys.

Holding her Colombian national jersey, Velasquez says she associates the yellow and blue with home and family. Her parents have never watched her play for her college team, and they won't be there in London either — it's more than they can afford. Velasquez is asking them to record messages that she'll listen to on her iPod before matches. She's also recorded her own words of encouragement.

"You just need to enjoy [it] and play hard," she tells herself. "This is for your family; this is for yourself. You better win. You better win, that's all I can say. And score, please, score."

This is the first time Colombia's women's team has made it to the Olympics. The men's team didn't make the cut this year, and that's a big deal for a country as soccer-obsessed as Colombia. It means that, at this summer's games, it'll be up to the women to salvage Colombia's national pride. And Orianica Velasquez will be on the front lines.

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. Athletes all over the world are trying to make the final cut in the run-up to this summer's Olympic Games. Orianica Velasquez is one of them. She plays soccer for Indiana University. But during the World Cup last year, she played for the Colombian national women's team.

(SOUNDBITE OF WOMEN'S WORLD CUP BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Here's (unintelligible) and straight (unintelligible) tries (unintelligible) goal, and Solo has to make the save. What an introduction that was from Velasquez.

BLOCK: Jessica Naudziunas met Velasquez and sent this profile.

JESSICA NAUDZIUNAS, BYLINE: For the next six weeks, Orianica Velasquez's sole mission is to earn a spot on the Colombian Olympic women's soccer team.

ORIANICA VELASQUEZ: My dream is to get a medal for Colombia. Yeah. And not only that, educating people that it's not just violence. It's just not drugs. We can play soccer, and we can do great things because we have great people there.

(SOUNDBITE OF SOCCER PRACTICE)

NAUDZIUNAS: A couple of weeks ago, she played one of the last matches of her junior year in Bloomington, Indiana.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Beat the Crusaders on three. One, two, three.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Beat the Crusaders.

NAUDZIUNAS: A few players slide across the muddy, rain-soaked field. It's not an easy day to play soccer, but it doesn't keep Velasquez from hunting down the ball. She scores a goal right as the team needs it.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

NAUDZIUNAS: Later, another goal with her signature left kick.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

NAUDZIUNAS: Velasquez goes for a third goal.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

NAUDZIUNAS: And the team fights for a win that eventually goes to their opponents. She moves with intuition and power. And she's a shoo-in for Colombia's Olympic soccer team. Velasquez has come a long way. Here's how she was discovered:

RICARDO ROZO: (Through Translator) And at that time, she was playing a role in a television series about soccer.

NAUDZIUNAS: Colombian women's national team coach Ricardo Rozo says he saw Velasquez's raw athletic talent shine through her role on a melodramatic teen soap opera about soccer.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JUEGO LIMPIO")

NAUDZIUNAS: Passion, love, dreams. The television program "Juego Limpio" or "Fair Play" embodies the spirit of soccer for Colombian fans. Coach Rozo recruited Velasquez away from the show to play for the Colombian women's team, and then Indiana University soccer coach Mick Lyon brought her to the U.S.

MICK LYON: She's a good forward because she's greedy. And that's what you ask for your forwards to be, you know, go to goal with the belief that you're going to score or create a chance.

NAUDZIUNAS: He helped her learn English and fight off homesickness for a family and culture 2,000 miles away.

VELASQUEZ: OK. Welcome home. This is my house.

NAUDZIUNAS: She lives in a quiet, sparsely decorated apartment. Christmas decorations still hang in the living room.

VELASQUEZ: This is my room.

NAUDZIUNAS: In the bedroom, she has keepsakes like purple soccer cleats...

VELASQUEZ: These are the cleats that I used in the World Cup.

NAUDZIUNAS: ...and retired jerseys.

VELASQUEZ: This is my jersey. And this is number 20, number 18. See, I just...

NAUDZIUNAS: So you have nine, 18 and 20.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

VELASQUEZ: Si. I have any number. Here are number nine. But in the national team, it's just any number.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

NAUDZIUNAS: She holds her Colombian national jersey in her hands. The yellow and blue mean home and family. Her parents have never watched her play for her college team. They won't be there in London either. It's more than they can afford. Velasquez is asking her parents to record messages that she'll listen to on her iPod before matches. And she's also recorded words of encouragement for herself.

VELASQUEZ: You just need to enjoy and play hard, and this is for your family. This is for yourself. And score, please score.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

NAUDZIUNAS: This is the first time the Colombian women have made it to the Olympics. The Colombian men, however, they didn't make the cut. That's a big deal for a soccer-obsessed country. And now, it's the women who are responsible for salvaging national pride. For NPR News, I'm Jessica Naudziunas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.