Print and Go Back ESPN.com: W in Action [Print without images]

Wednesday, October 9, 2013
Lisa Fernandez the gold standard

By Andrew Linnehan
Special to espnW

Lisa fernandez
Lisa Fernandez leads her teammates across the field after winning the gold medal at the 2004 Olympics in Athens.

It was a scene straight out of "Groundhog Day," a pattern that would make Bill Murray's character squirm. Fortunately, Sue Enquist was not Phil Connors.

Over and over and over again, Enquist, the former UCLA softball coach and one of the sport's greatest icons, sat in the living room of one of the nation's best high school softball players. For nearly three decades, Enquist dedicated her life to recruiting the best talent to Westwood, building a program that is often referenced as the gold standard in college softball. During these years and in these living rooms, she met all different types of girls from all different types of backgrounds with all different types of skill sets. One thing, however, was as predictable as Connors' alarm clock.

"Recruits always want to show you their bedroom, and you would always go into their rooms and find shrines to Lisa Fernandez," Enquist said. "And these would be the best high school players in the country, and every one of them would have stories about how they met Lisa when they were in sixth grade, and their parents would say that they learned how to be better parents because of Lisa."

It may seem counterintuitive, but to understand Fernandez's legacy as a softball player is to understand her impact away from the diamond.

Fernandez, who was voted the seventh-most influential Hispanic female athlete of all time in a poll conducted by espnW and ESPN Deportes, is a first-generation American. Her father, Antonio, grew up in Cuba and enjoyed a stint as a semipro baseball player before emigrating to the United States in the early 1960s. Emilia, Lisa's mother, was born in Puerto Rico and arrived in L.A. in her late teens via New York. The couple played organized slow-pitch softball together and would bring 2-year-old Lisa to their games, piquing her interest in the sport.

By the time Fernandez reached high school, she had the attention of elite colleges that wanted her both as a pitcher and as a hitter. To Enquist, though, then in her first year as a co-head coach of the UCLA softball team, it was Fernandez's intangibles that separated her from the pack.

"I have never met a coach or a player who could see the game before the game developed quite like Lisa can," Enquist said. "She had a coach's curiosity even as a freshman. She could feel the momentum shift; she could pick up on an opponent's signals or pitches. I knew as a coach we were going to capitalize on this ability. She is an absolute engineer of the game."

And in order to be the one Enquist labels the greatest softball player ever, Fernandez had to develop all of those intangibles. Fernandez has never been the tallest of her friends or teammates. As a teenager, some even thought she wouldn't be able to pitch on the college level because she didn't have the height or length of other elite pitchers.

She topped off at 5-foot-6, and her diminutive stature meant small hands, further handicapping her ability to grip and spin a softball. But you can't handicap heart, and Enquist knew it.

In Fernandez's four years at UCLA, she lit the NCAA on fire. From the circle, she baffled batters. From the batter's box, she puzzled pitchers. She earned first-team All-American honors in each of her four seasons and helped the Bruins to two national championships. Her senior season, Fernandez led the nation in both ERA (0.23) and batting average (.510).

Her college dominance led to an opportunity to play for Team USA, and hence an international platform. Her first Olympics came in Atlanta in 1996, an emotional time for the family as Lisa donned a USA jersey just after her father had become a U.S. citizen.

Lisa Fernandez
Lisa Fernandez stood only 5-foot-6, but she repeatedly rose to the occasion at the Olympics.

It was also at these Games that Fernandez became a leading voice not only for her sport but for professional female athletes everywhere. At the time, the U.S. softball team had team sponsorships but did not allow its players to have individual representation. So when Fernandez, who had signed with both Louisville Slugger and Reebok right out of college in 1994, began play for a USA team that endorsed Nike and Easton, there arose a highly publicized dilemma.

Fernandez and agent Tom McCarthy (who still represents her) had to fight for female athletes to have individual sponsorships, even when they played on teams that might carry competing endorsers.

"It was important for me to fight for individual interests, at least when I did things privately -- like lessons or clinics -- so I could use the apparel and equipment I was comfortable using," Fernandez said. "And then, on a greater scale, it was about providing an opportunity for the women behind me."

Almost instantly during the '96 Games, Fernandez became an American celebrity. Her 0.33 ERA in Atlanta dazzled fans. It was the first of three consecutive gold medals for Fernandez, and now she had sponsorships that created a capacity to extend her accomplishments into the American mainstream.

But it also allowed her to teach core values of a Hispanic culture that means so much to her.

"In the Hispanic culture you play and you live with a lot of passion and pride," Fernandez said. "And when I go out and speak to people, I know that I don't just represent me, I represent my families of Puerto Ricans and Cubans, and I want that responsibility. I want to represent these people."

Enquist deeply appreciates that passion and pride.

"She has always been available to her community," Enquist said. "In her core, she is so giving. From politicians to athletes to corporate America, she has never said no. I wish that would get more publicity."

Perhaps this is the beauty of Fernandez's impact. Perhaps her smaller physique is emblematic of her greater purpose: an undersized, modest presence who ends up leaving a lasting, meaningful impact.