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Stuart Johnson, Deseret News
BYU volleyball player Joel Silva has taken the long road to playing in the Olympics. He is on Venezuela's national team.

PROVO — For volleyball player Joel Silva, the road to the 2008 Beijing Olympics started in a remote central Venezuelan town and made key stops in Thailand, Missouri, Utah and Argentina before reaching China this summer.

All to compete in a sport Silva — BYU's two-year starter at libero — initially eschewed as being somewhat effeminate.

Silva played nearly a dozen different sports growing up on the courts, fields and dirt roads outside of San Fernando de Apure, favoring the national favorite "beisbol." As a young teenager, he only agreed to try the likes of basketball, soccer and volleyball when state officials scoured local schools looking to field regional teams for cross-country competition and students were offered extra-credit academic points.

Already towering at 6-foot-2 over fellow 13-year-olds, Silva seemed destined to shine at either basketball or volleyball but tried to avoid the latter. "I didn't like it then," he recalled. "I used to say it was a women's sport."

He not only made the Apure volleyball team as an outside hitter but later was invited to join the national volleyball program, requiring him to leave his family and hometown and move several hundred miles away to the capital city of Caracas.

Silva didn't exceed his 6-2 height — "I still feel really tall when I go home," he says — and was forced to switch from hitter to defensive specialist as he progressed among the age-specific national youth squads en route to his 2003 high school graduation.

Since Venezuelan universities cater mostly to academics rather than sports and activities, Silva knew he was facing a choice — to either attend college full-time or continue with the national volleyball program, which practiced twice daily, six days a week.

Instead, he opted to do both, pursuing collegiate volleyball in the United States. One possibility he considered, among others, was Brigham Young University — he remembered having watched the Cougars on ESPN win the NCAA title in 2001 and barely lose to Lewis in the '03 championship match.

But after making contacts and sending out volleyball videos, cultural challenges resulted in early setbacks — Silva struggled initially to meet English proficiency standards and didn't have access to funds in U.S. dollars to pay registration fees.

Instead, he ended up in Missouri at Park University, which has a top NAIA volleyball program. Becoming a member of Venezuela's senior national team in 2005, Silva didn't play at Park while working on passing English tests and gaining academic standing. During an international tournament in Thailand, he met Puerto Rico's Ivan Perez, who was BYU-bound and suggested Silva consider the Cougar program.

And when Venezuela faced the United States in the 2006 World Championships, Silva met U.S. middle blocker Ryan Millar, the former BYU All-American who was joining the BYU coaching staff — and the Cougar connection for Silva became even more solidified.

The native of Venezuela's tropical plains eventually arrived in snow-bound Provo during the December 2006 semester break, by himself for the holidays. The relatively unknown freshman libero soon broke into BYU's main rotation early the next month — and has stayed there the past two seasons as a solid Cougar contributor.

Offseason heartbreaks last year included missing the 2007 Pan American Games because of a broken finger and the fall passing of his father back home.

This past January, Venezuela enjoyed the double delight of both its men's and women's senior teams winning their respective South American zone Olympic qualifying tournaments — the women triumphing in Peru and the men, including Silva, beating Argentina, the favored men's tournament host.

In the history of the Summer Games, Venezuela has fielded only three teams — most recently with soccer in 1984 and men's basketball in 1992. The oil-rich nation will double that total this summer by making Olympic debuts in Beijing in three team sports — men's and women's soccer and softball.

The four-set finals qualifying victory over Argentina was especially sweet for the Venezuelan men, who had scrambled from U.S. collegiate programs and pro teams across the globe for a week's worth of practice. They ended up avenging the team's loss to Argentina in the 2004 Olympic qualifying finals played in Caracas.

"That was a big deal in Venezuela," said Silva of the double qualification, as Hugo Chavez sent his presidential jet to fetch both teams back to a heroes' welcome back home.

"It took two hours to get out of the (Caracas) airport and get to the president's house — everywhere it was full of people," said Silva, adding that national team members had to postpone most of the celebrations as they were forced to return to their collegiate and pro teams.

They're returning this summer to comprise one of the youngest men's volleyball national teams — all members are under 30 years, with Silva at age 22.

Venezuela currently is prepping for the Beijing Games by competing in the 2008 World League, in the Pool A foursome with France, Serbia and Brazil, the latter the world's top-ranked team this summer.

Ranked No. 20 in the world, Venezuela did upset 8th-ranked Serbia earlier this summer. And they've taken 1-0 set leads in a pair of World League losses to Brazil.

And in Beijing, Venezuela will be in Pool A along with third-ranked United States, No. 4 Bulgaria, No. 10 Italy, No. 12 Japan and No. 21 China.

Venezuela makes its Olympic debut on Aug. 10 against the United States, pitting Silva against Millar, his former Cougar coach.

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