June 24, 2011
By Bill Bennett
"I like the idea of using your entire body to throw one little thing as far as you can. You get the feeling of being so powerful." - Seilala Sua 1996-97 UCLA Athletic Biographical Questionnaire
Sly & The Family Stone was a successful rock band from the late 1960s through the early 1980s. From 1997-2000, Seilala Sua, nicknamed "Sly", established herself as the greatest women's thrower in UCLA and NCAA track & field history by winning seven national indoor and outdoor shot put and discus individual championships. She helped lead "Sly and the Family Bruin" women's track & field team to an NCAA championship and four consecutive Pac-10 titles.
During her four collegiate seasons at indoor and outdoor national and conference track & field meets, Sua scored points for the Bruins in five different throwing events. In the discus, she became the only athlete in NCAA history to win four consecutive NCAA Outdoor crowns in a field event, while also capturing two Pac-10 titles. In indoor and outdoor shot put competition, Sua was a three-time NCAA and conference titlist. She also picked up NCAA Indoor points for the Bruins in the 20lb. weight throw and outdoors, garnered a Pac-10 javelin championship and scored points in the hammer throw.
Sua continued her successful throwing triumphs for USA T & F, winning four national discus titles, a shot put crown and representing the U.S. at the 2000 and 2004 Olympic Games.
In 2005-06, Sua returned to UCLA as the women's throws assistant coach, then a year later, traveled up the road to CS Northridge where she just completed her fifth season as the women's and men's throws coach for the Matadors track & field team.
On Oct. 1, 2010, Sua was one of eight Bruins inducted into the UCLA Athletics Hall of Fame. She became just the second UCLA woman's thrower to be enshrined into the Bruin Hall of Fame, joining 2005 inductee Dawn Dumble.
Bruins In The Real World: How did you get the nickname Sly?
Seilala Sua Zumbado: When I was 11 years old, I played travel softball and my teammate's Dad gave me the nickname Sly. I am not sure why but it just kind of stuck.
BRW: In junior high school, your softball coaches introduced you to the throwing events in track & field. Looking back, what were your initial thoughts about that sports experiment?
SSZ: When I first started throwing, I hated it. I was so into softball and everything in my life was about softball. At my junior high school, they offered volleyball, basketball, track and field and softball. None of the seasons ran into each other. I had just completed basketball season and I basically had nothing to do until softball season so my coach suggested I try it. I agreed with a little push from my Dad. It was not something that I liked but it kept me busy. But then I started to get a little better each time I went out there and before I knew it, I was winning track meets. Then I really started to like it and that's where my love for throwing began.
"I like the individual aspect of throwing. You get all the glory or all the pain, you can't blame it on somebody else. Not a lot of people know about it. I like the aspect that it's away from the mainstream sports like basketball." - Seilala Sua, USA Today, June 2, 1999
BRW: At what point in your young athletic career did you realize that the throwing events would become your sport specialty? What were the reasons that made you decide to make track & field your full-time athletic career?
SSZ: I think the point that I realized that I was in this for the long haul was definitely after my freshman year of high school. I had continued to play softball and compete in track at the same time. I still had improved in track but after talking it over with my parents, we thought that it would be a good idea to concentrate more on the track part and dedicate my time fully to it in the spring season. After the school year was completed, I got invited to a USATF Junior Development Throwing Camp in Colorado Springs. After that camp, my Dad and I learned a lot about the potential that I had to become a good thrower and earn a scholarship to college. The main reason that we decided it would be a good idea for me to make track and field my career of choice was so that it would offer me a better opportunity for a college scholarship. I liked the individual aspect of the sport as well.
BRW: Describe your recruiting process. Along with UCLA, what other schools were you looking at and what were the factors that made you decide to become a Bruin?
SSZ: Ever since I visited California when I was in the sixth grade, I knew that I wanted to come out here for school. Both of my parents are from California and the thought of coming out to California for school excited me. Art Venegas was the first to call me on the day that I was allowed to receive phone calls from college coaches. That was the most important call that I received that day. UCLA was my first visit and I knew that I wanted to come here for school right away. Everything clicked for me in terms of what I was looking for in a school: the coach, school, team, academics, environment, and also the fact that I had family out here helped make my decision that this was the place for me. I did take all of my other visits but no other school spoke to me the way UCLA did. I took visits to SMU, BYU, LSU, University of Florida, and University of North Carolina. While they all had strong programs, I just felt that I was supposed to be a Bruin.
One UCLA factor that especially stood out for me was that I would be able to train alongside some of the greatest throwers of all-time. I mean, when would another opportunity arise where I would be able to train with throwing greats such as John Godina, Valeyta Althouse, Dawn Dumble, and Suzy Powell? Also, that I could have that type of coach/athlete relationship with Art that would take me far into a successful throwing career, made me decide that I was a Bruin the moment I stepped onto UCLA's campus.
BRW: As a team, UCLA finished second at the NCAA Outdoor in your sophomore and junior seasons. Winning the 2000 NCAA Indoor team title as a senior must have been a sweet experience for you and your Bruin teammates.
SSZ: The couple of years we finished second really were heartbreaking. It seemed that we would be unbeatable when it came time to perform at the NCAA Championships, but things didn't always work out that way. There is always going to be one or two mishaps but all in all, I think that as a team, we did great. When I think about it now, that was amazing that we could all come together to pull off a second-place finish. When you think about track and field, it really is like a couple of little teams within a big team. The throwers have their squad as well as the sprinters, jumpers, and distance runners. The time we really come together as a team is at the UCLA/USC meet, and Pac 10 and NCAA Championships. So the fact that we were able to pull off such a high placement those couple of years said a lot about our team. When we won my senior year at NCAA Indoor that was just icing on the cake. I will never forget that day because we finally accomplished something that we had been striving for. Everything fell into place for us and I couldn't have asked for it to happen at a better time.
"In the short term, two to four years, she can be the best in the world in the discus and one of the elites in the shot. I've told her if she matures properly, socially and intellectually, the sky is the limit. She has no physical limitations. She fits every international profile." - Art Venegas, UCLA Men's T & F Head Coach (1999-09), USA Today June 2, 1999
"When she graduates, I'm going to miss her spirit. Not just her competitive spirit, but her loving attitude, her seriousness, her willingness to help everybody on the team." - Jeanette Bolden, UCLA Women's T & F Head Coach, Daily Bruin , April 12, 2000
SSZ: One of the reasons that I came to UCLA was because of Jeanette. She has established such a strong overall program and I wanted to be a part of that. Jeanette was such a great athlete herself and I knew that I could learn a thing or two from her. Even though Jeanette wasn't my event coach, I took everything she said and applied it to myself as a student-athlete. Her ability to motivate me and get me going when maybe I didn't feel like it made such a huge impact on how I competed. She taught me such valuable lessons and what it means to be a true Bruin.
When I moved away from home, my Dad was the only track coach that I had ever had. When Art become my coach I didn't realize it then, but he was my Dad away from home. On my recruiting visit to UCLA, Art and I clicked instantly. He understood what it took to be a champion. I knew that he was going to be the tool that I needed in order for me to become an Olympian and NCAA Champion. His credentials and the athletes that he worked with spoke volumes. The first couple of years Art and I had some issues. I was a typical athlete, thinking I knew what was best for me and that I was going to do what I wanted. But as we got over that hump, I realized that Art had my best interest at heart and wanted only the best for me. Art was also my coach after I graduated from college. Some of those years were rough. But I will be forever in debt to Art and I am so thankful that he stuck by me even when my performances were dismal and my throwing seemed hopeless. He never lost faith in me. And I do miss seeing him at practice or at the track on a daily basis because he always seemed to make me laugh with his legendary stories.
"If you want to be the best thrower in the world, you can't do one event. You've got to do two or maybe three." - Seilala Sua, USA Today, June 2, 1999
BRW: Describe the challenges in technique and workouts mastering five different throwing events - shot put, discus, javelin, hammer, 20lb. weight throw?
SSZ: When I first got to UCLA I knew for sure that I was going to be competing in the shot put and discus. Little did I know that I would be picking up all the other throwing events. It was funny because we would always throw around the football just as a way to mess around or relax before and after practice. One day Art saw me throwing it and asked me to go down on the field with the javelin and do some stabs into the ground. I had no idea how because I had never thrown one before. Surprisingly, I knew how to hold it and I guess I had a feel for it because I had played softball for so many years. That day I also became a javelin thrower.
Now hammer was a different story. From the moment that I had picked it up, I hated it. But Art had forced me to keep at it because he kept saying, "Just trust me, you are going to be good." So I would go to practice, hit the cage a bunch of times and throw it out of bounds constantly. But I stuck with it. And before I knew it, my junior season, I started to like it a little bit. By the time I was a senior, I loved the weight and the hammer. I was so sad when it was time to give it up, because I knew that discus was going to be my main event when I decided to continue my career after college. I would have to say doing all five of the throwing events definitely helped my discus. I believe it helped keep me in shape physically and mentally. I learned that I couldn't let myself get too down if an event didn't go well because I knew I had another one right after that. As throwers, we are lucky that we get six chances (attempts) to better our marks as opposed to runners who only get one race.
BRW: During your four years at UCLA, you were teammates with some great Bruins, including hurdler Joanna Hayes, thrower Suzy Powell, pole vaulter Tracy O'Hara and hurdler Michelle Perry. What are some memories from your Bruin years?
SSZ: The memories that I have from my years on the Bruin track team are some memories that I will never forget. I developed so many special friendships that I know could never be replaced. Not only was the throwing squad a tight knit family, but so was the rest of the team. Now as a coach, I encounter so many issues with my student-athletes not knowing what is the meaning of the word "team." As a student-athlete at UCLA, I don't ever remember encountering gossip or guy issues with my teammates. I would have to say my teammates at UCLA were just an extension of my family. I thought of all of them as my brothers and sisters. Art had a rule that you could not join a fraternity or sorority, but I felt in a sense, we had our own out there. We pushed each other when some of us didn't feel like it and we called each other out if something wrong was going on. My teammates and I will forever be Bruins together.
BRW: What were your feelings and emotions as a senior in 2000, following your fourth consecutive NCAA discus title, to become just the second woman (Suzy Favor Hamilton, Wisconsin, 1500m, 1987-90) in NCAA Outdoor track & field history to win four straight individual events?
SSZ: I never thought about it until it was actually done. I really only wanted to go out there and do the very best that I could for my team. In the end, it just happened to be that I had accomplished this feat. I was happy and honored that my name was mentioned in the same sentence with Suzy Favor Hamilton. But I was also sad that this was the end to my collegiate career. I did want to move on from college athletically, but now that I look back on it, that was the best environment in terms of training purposes for me. I had my teammates and I had the financial support from UCLA to be able to travel to these great meets.
USA T & F CAREER
"College is really great, but I'm ready to move on and go to the next level. I think about the future. If you live in the past, you are not going to get anywhere." - Seilala Sua, L.A. Daily News, June 25, 1999
BRW: What are the major differences competing at the collegiate level, compared to competing internationally?
SSZ: As I mentioned, the two main differences competing internationally, as opposed to the collegiate level, are having your teammates and financial support. I did get a little financial support from USATF. But for the most part I was always worried about getting my prize money, or how I was going to be getting to the meets. It was hard but I made it work somehow for six years. In terms of the competition, I made some world and Olympic teams, so I had the opportunity to travel and that was a lot of fun. Throwing professionally became a job for me and when I was in college, I never thought of it as that. When I competed in college, it was all about going to school, having fun and winning.
BRW: Once your collegiate career concluded, you concentrated more on the discus than the shot put. Why did you choose the discus over the shot?
SSZ: I believe that the discus chose me. I was meant to throw things and the discus just felt right in my hand. I did like the shot put but it was something that wasn't as natural as the discus. Art and I knew that the opportunity for me to compete at a high international level meant that I needed to put more focus on the discus. The shot put and I had a love/hate relationship. One day I would like it, and then the next day I would hate it. When I had terrible practices in the discus or lost competitions, I still loved throwing it. This was not the case with the shot put.
BRW: What did it mean to you wearing the USA colors in Olympic competition?
SSZ: I was asked over the years if I had dual citizenship since my father was born in American Samoa. When my parents and I discussed what my long-term goal was if I decided to compete in track and field, we did talk about the Olympics and if this was something that I wanted to shoot for. We never mentioned anything about competing for American Samoa. I'm an American. I was born in Florida and never lived anywhere but in the United States. So it meant a great deal to me to be able to represent my country and put my very best foot forward. I did march in the 2000 Opening Ceremonies in Sydney and let me tell you, nothing will ever compare to that. I had such pride wearing the red, white and blue. Hearing people chant, "U-S-A, U-S-A," was the most amazing feeling.
BRW: During all your international travels, what was your favorite city to visit?
SSZ: There are so many different cities that I loved, but I would have to say my two favorite cities that I traveled to were Athens and Sydney. I loved Athens because of the culture and history. On my days off from practice or competition, I would take the public transit system they had and just explore the city alone. There was just so much to see that I wish that I had more time there. I loved Sydney because I felt like I was at home when I was there. The people were so generous and welcoming. I have been there three times in my life and I hope to make it many more.
BRW: When and why did you know it was time to retire from your athletic career and enter coaching?
SSZ: I knew that it was time to retire from my throwing career when I started to think that throwing was my job. The fun was not there anymore and I was doing it for all the wrong reasons. But I loved throwing so much that I still wanted to be involved in some way, shape or form. Art had asked me if I wanted to coach the Bruin women and I agreed. While it was not the easiest transition, I knew that it was going to be something that I wanted to pursue as a career.
For so many years, throwing was my life and I wanted to make an impact in some way. Whether it was by teaching the knowledge of technique that I learned from Art or the mental discipline that I had developed from my parents, I was going to continue contributing to the track and field world.
BRW: Describe yourself as a coach. What aspects of coaching have you acquired through your own athletic career and from what you've learned from your past personal coaches?
SSZ: I would like to consider myself a coach who is understanding and open to communication. That is the one valuable lesson that I learned as an athlete. I would like my athletes to have that type of trust in me because without that trust between an athlete and a coach, the relationship is doomed. I look back on my career and cringe sometimes at the things that I might have said or done. Art and I did clash at first a little bit, but in the end, I knew that he always was looking out for my best interest. I just wish that I would have been a little more open to having that communication early on that we had established so late in my career. The first thing that I stress to my athletes is to just be honest with me. Let me know what is going on so maybe we can avoid conflict in the future. Coaching is something that I love to do. What better job is out there where your office is outside in the beautiful California weather? I get to travel and I enjoy seeing my throwers improve on a daily basis.
BRW: Where do you see yourself as a coach in the next several years? Would you like to be a collegiate head coach some day?
SSZ: As a coach, it is very important to me to see my student-athletes graduate and become successful in the world. I refer to my student-athletes as my kids because I do look at them as my own. Once they are a part of my team, it is my duty to help them accomplish the goals that they set forth for themselves in the track world. Now, if they want to take a step further and ask for my help outside of the track world, I am willing to help in any way that I can. I took a lot of lessons that I learned on the field from Art and applied them to my real life outside of track and field. I definitely see myself still coaching. I am so happy that I have the opportunity to do what I love. So many people out there are not so fortunate. I'm not so sure about being a collegiate head coach some day. I know the amount of time that I already put in is a lot, but I can't even imagine the amount of time a head coach puts in. Since my husband and I just started our family, I don't see that as something I would like to do now. Because all I want to do besides being at the track is to be with my son and my husband. But maybe down the line when my children are grown, it will be something that I may want to pursue.
UCLA ATHLETICS HALL OF FAME
BRW: Looking back on your UCLA career, what are one or two of the most important elements that have stayed with you throughout your life?
SSZ: I would have to say that having my support team of trainers, tutors, teammates, academic advisors and coaches helped me become a successful student-athlete. Without the help of all of them, my career would have not been possible. I learned so many things from so many different people that I can never begin to thank them all enough.
BRW: When you got the call that you were going to be a member of the 2010 class inducted into the UCLA Athletics Hall of Fame, what were you thoughts?
SSZ: I was definitely surprised and so excited. I called my sister and parents right away. It is such a huge honor to be recognized among the other elite figures in UCLA Athletics. The tradition at UCLA is something that is so great. To be included with the rest of the members of the Hall of Fame is something that I am so grateful and thankful for.