By Derek Johnson
If Diane Pascua manages to reach the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, it would have stemmed from a peculiar question asked of her two years earlier. It was while she was at an AVP Tournament, preparing for a beach volleyball match, that she was approached by her opponent and friend, Heidi Illustre.
“Diane, can you prove that you’re Filipino?”
The reasoning behind the question was simple enough. The Philippines had a recruiter in Los Angeles, searching for talent with approved bloodlines traceable back to the homeland. The Southeast Asian Games (known as the SEA games) were soon to be held in the Philippines. The host country was adamant about putting together a team capable of capturing a medal.
While momentarily stunned, Diane Pascua quickly affirmed that indeed she could prove her heritage. She had already been chirping into Illustre’s ear for awhile about forming a team together. This situation provided the perfect opportunity.
Soon the women had new passports and dual citizenship in both the United States and the Philippines. They trained hard and headed east. Right off the bat, they ran into resistance.
“In the SEA games, there was a big controversy,” said Pascua. “People were asking, `Who are these girls? We know they’ve played the AVP. Prove it to us that they’re Filipino!’ There was a big forty-five minute discussion and Heidi and I just kind of covered our heads. We told them, `It’s legal, we have dual citizenship.’ There’s actually quite a few countries that have players who are Americans. There’s a Brit-American team, a Georgia-Brazil team. But if you have another way to go for it, why not?”
Pascua and Illustre went on to shock everyone by winning the bronze medal. From that point on, most of their competitors grew to view them as Filipino.
“After the first SEA games, we became known as a new team in the Asian community,” said Pascua. “We got invited to a Korea event, and we got invited to a Hong Kong event in November 2006. However, we went as nobodies. Everyone was looking at us like `You’re from the Philippines and the Philippines has never really produced anything.’ They didn’t know that we were coming from Los Angeles. We were seeded dead last and finished 5th in both events. In Hong Kong we faced a couple of China teams and an Austrian team. We didn’t win those, but we got a taste. We started thinking, `Hey, could qualify for the Olympics? It’s a once in a lifetime chance. Can we do this?’ We finally decided, `Let’s go for it!’”
Through some connections and low-level sponsorship, Pascua and Illustre went back on the tour for three months in 2007. They upset a team from China and Australia and qualified for seven events. But they also got knocked around a bit, failing to qualify for three major grand slam events. It was when things looked bleakest that a moment of truth transpired.
“Throughout the season there are five grand slam events,” explained Pascua. “They are double money and double points. They limit who qualifies. We didn’t qualify for the Paris Grand Slam event, but we went to it and watched, even though we were a little bitter. We couldn’t go to the grand Slam in Norway because it was too expensive. We couldn’t qualify for the one in Berlin, and we made it to the one in Canada. But there were three Grand Slams we missed because we didn’t have enough points to qualify. That really hurt us, because those were missed chances to earn double points and double money.
“But then the World Champs Tournament came around,” she said. “World Champs comes around once every two years. It’s the mother of all tournaments. I looked on the entry (list), and Heidi and I were in it! We hadn’t qualified for the Grand Slams, but by a miracle, we got into the World Champs. We were the last team allowed in. We were seeded 44th out of 48 teams. The four teams behind us were wildcards.
“So again we’re arriving as nobodies,” she said. “The teams in our pool were Australia at the #5 seed, Finland at #25 and Austria at #14. Our first game was against Australia. One of their players is a two-time gold medalist who has been to three Olympics. She is actually done after this season because she is so full of injuries. But she is so smart and so good. And her partner is 6’5”. So it was a David and Goliath situation out there for us. We had faced them twice before and lost both times.
“Well, we go out on the court,” said Pascua, “and we ended up beating them in two games! We were stunned when it was over. When they hit the last ball out and the game ended, Heidi and I didn’t know how to react. We just looked at each other. That win meant so much to how we were going to finish the tournament, having beaten the fifth-seeded team.
“After that we lost to Austria in two games,” she said. “We ended up by beating Finland, to finish 2-1. We had our food and hotel paid for for the entire week. We were treated like royalty, just for being in the World Champs tournament. That was a thrilling time.”
Now in January 2008, a new tour season starts in a few weeks. Pascua says she and Illustre are rested and ready to begin training for the months to come.
“We’re thinking about the ’08 season,” she said. “We have 13 events to play, starting in Australia. The way you qualify for Olympics, they take your top eight finishes (from the tour), and if you rank in the top 24, you’re going to the Olympics.
“Heidi and I have a good understanding of what to expect from each other,” she said. “I’m doing what I love to do. I don’t make the money that a football player or baseball player makes. But to know that each time I go to the beach to play, I know I am getting a step closer to accomplishing my dream.
“To get to Beijing, the biggest thing would be that for everyone that has supported us, it would be a big sigh. We suffered through the hardships and made it past what many people think can’t be done—because of the way we did this. It would be absolutely a dream come true. I hate to say this, but I almost feel that if we got there, I wouldn’t care how we finished.”
Pascua paused, then added: “Because just to get to the Olympics is something that not many people can say they did in their lifetime.”
To donate to Diane and Heidi’s journey toward the Olympics, please visit this website: