Gabriela Chavez

Valley High's American dream

This is a story about diversity, about tolerance, about the make-up of California and, more, the United States of America as it really is now. There were seven girls on this year's Santa Ana Valley High School water polo team. Six are Latino. One is Vietnamese-American. "We had to find some way to communicate to become a family," said one of the team's seniors, 17-year-old Bianka Baeza. It's about one really great coach, Fred Lammers, a 59-year-old biology teacher who has been at the same school since 1976, who gets up at 4:30 every morning and then rides his bicycle to and from work, who is on the pool deck before dawn, who believes in the elemental mission of helping young people become the best they can be.

Finally, it's about the thing that sports teaches if you're willing to go there. "If you believe in yourself," the team's senior captain, 17-year-old Liz Silva, said, "anything is possible. You just have to do it."

When they joined the program, most at the start of their freshmen year at Valley High, none of the seven players on the team knew how to swim. Literally, none could swim. Each had to start by blowing bubbles in the shallow end of the high school pool.

Now they are the California Interscholastic Federation Southern Section Division 7 water polo champions -- and for the second straight year.

In the championship game, played recently at nearby Irvine High School, Valley defeated Los Amigos High, 8-7, senior attacker Jazmin Hinojoza scoring with 2:40 remaining to seal the deal. Jazmin, who scored five goals in the game, was later named the section's player of the year.

Again -- four years ago she couldn't even tread water.

"I would be in the shallow end," Jazmin, now 18, said of her childhood and pools. "I would float." But as for the deep end, and swimming itself? "I would never feel the need to."

Water polo is maybe the toughest game there is. It's back-and-forth swimming and constant contact, above and below the water. A California high school game is four seven-minute quarters.

At the start of every school year at Valley, Lammers advertises -- over the internal public-address system -- for recruits. He is under no illusions. Valley opened in 1959. According to its most recent report, it now serves roughly 2,400 students, of whom 96.7 are Latino and 93.3 are "socioeconomically disadvantaged."

Liz Silva's mom works in a fabric factory, sewing backpacks. Jazmin Hinojoza's mom is a bus driver. Bianka Baeza's mom doesn't have work right now; her stepdad does maintenance at an apartment complex.

Drowning is the second-leading cause of childhood accidental death. Five years ago, USA Swimming launched a program called "Make a Splash." It now features -- among others -- Cullen Jones, a gold medalist from the 2008 Beijing Games 400-meter freestyle relay, who himself nearly drowned as a boy.

On Thursday, the program announced $300,000 in grants to partners in 20 states; overall, it has worked with 515 providers in 47 states. Michael Phelps' foundation has also launched learn-to-swim drives across the country.

Similarly, USA Water Polo is now giving its "Splashball" program free to programs such as YMCAs, JCCs, Boys & Girls Clubs and parks and recreation departments.

The urgency behind these initiatives is obvious: the drowning rates are alarming, and they're nothing less than horrifying for children who come from minority households. Four of 10 white children, according to USA Swimming, can't swim. In Latino households, that number is six of 10. In black households, it's seven of 10.

"I don't get anyone who knows how to swim," Fred Lammers said. "If you throw them into the deep water, you'd better jump in and save them."

Remarkably, the school is the site of a 50-meter pool, same as an Olympic distance, installed just four years ago, after a successful bond measure. It was built with one quirk. There's a shallow end.

That's where swim lessons at Valley High start.

"When it was time to go to the deep end," the second week of swim lessons, Bianka Baeza said, "I was like, 'Are you serious? Already?' I was so scared.

"I was saying to myself, 'I don't want to drown.' "

Liz Silva said, "I thought I'd be able to swim in a week or two. I was wrong." It took a month just to get the strokes down, then another to get comfortable in deep water.

What kept her going, she said, was support from Lammers; from her two older sisters; and something else. She said, "I'm very competitive. I wanted to beat everybody in the water."

It's not just the learning how-to-swim element of the story that makes Valley's championship story so compelling. As well, each of the girls has good grades and, assuming finances can be worked out, is heading for college.

What makes the water polo part itself so improbable, if you know the sport, is that because there were only seven girls on the team there were essentially no substitutes.

As Claudia Dodson, USA Water Polo's director of club and member programs, said, "To overcome the swimming obstacle and go on to win a CIF championship with no subs is as close to a miracle as I can imagine."

The 2011 Valley team won the Division 7 championship but then graduated three players, leaving only those three seniors and junior goalkeeper Gabriela Chavez. To repeat? With three new juniors -- Vanessa Santos, Minh Le and Merab Romero?

Well -- why not?

"With water polo or any sport, you learn responsibility, you learn teamwork and you learn working with others. You learn so much being on a sports team," Bianka said.

Lammers said, "My favorite time of the year is toward the end of the season. I ask them for a minute, just to listen to me. Then they are out there and … they are running the game."

This, of course, is what every coach wants -- for his players to take control.

You want control? You want family?

Liz, a rising senior, and Minh, an incoming junior, knew before the school year began that they would be playing on the same side of the pool. Polo is like basketball, or soccer, in that regard.

So, last summer, Liz took it upon herself to go to Minh and learn the Vietnamese words and phrases for certain things they both knew would come up time and again. Like, "Go get the ball." Or, "Come in." Or, best yet," Shoot!"

Liz said it was hilarious when the two of them would be talking away in games in Vietnamese and players on the other teams would be looking at them in bewilderment: "The other girls were like, 'What are you telling her?!' "

During the 2012 regular season, Valley stormed to a 20-7 regular season record. On Jan. 31, Valley defeated Los Amigos, 4-3, with Minh lobbing a perfect lob shot into the far corner for the winner in sudden-death.

After making it through to the CIF championship game, the plan against Los Amigos was to get Jazmin the ball as much as possible.

Minh scored. Vanessa scored. Bianka scored. And Jazmin scored five.

The victory, Jazmin said, was dedicated not only to her coach and her teammates, but to her father, Richard, who died about a year ago, on Feb. 7, 2011. "I was feeling overwhelmed," she said. "I was thinking of my dad. It was hard. But I knew what I had to do."

She said, "It's, like, overwhelming how much we can accomplish in a short period of time. It's amazing. It was coaching. It was our determination. It was us, as a team."