In a whirlwind of memorials and awards programs at the end of April, the Santa Barbara community feted some of its greatest sports leaders and athletes.
UCSB staged a pandemic-delayed tribute to the late Donn Bernstein, the legendary sports information director who spent eight lively years (1964-71) on the campus, where he forged a multitude of lasting friendships. After moving to New York to work for ABC Sports, “Bernie” set up a virtual UCSB embassy on the Upper West Side. He was such an animated ambassador of Gaucho goodwill that Chancellor Henry Yang dubbed him “the spirit of UCSB.”
On May 1, a day after the Bernstein memorial, a large crowd filled the amphitheater at Elings Park to remember Mike Warren, who died on January 23. Warren, a former Gaucho linebacker, touched many lives from Carpinteria to Lompoc as a coach, history teacher, athletic director and project leader in non-profits (Elings Park) and business. “His disdain for mediocrity was legendary,” said Warren’s friend Tom Blanco. Iron Mike’s last and perhaps best role was as “Pops” to six grandchildren. “The guy knew every rule to every sport,” said his granddaughter Emma Foster. “We played seven.”
Meanwhile, two new classes were ushered last month into the Santa Barbara Athletic Round Table Hall of Fame and UCSB’s Gaucho Hall of Fame. The induction ceremonies were congratulatory occasions with moments of poignancy, especially when Carly Wopat received her Round Table recognition.
Wopat was honored for her career as a volleyball player at Dos Pueblos High, leading the Charger girls to a CIF championship in 2009, and at Stanford, where she was a three-time All-America selection. While thanking her parents and coaches, she made special mention of her twin sister Samantha, better known as Sam.
“She cannot be with me here today physically, but this induction is truly just as much hers as it is mine,” Carly said. “Volleyball was one of my biggest connections to Sam, and who we were as twins. It was our shared passion. We were the Dos Pueblos Twins, and it is our dynamic that made us so successful then, and continues to help me succeed in life now.”
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Sam Wopat, who received a Stanford scholarship along with her sister, died from suicide 10 years ago during their sophomore year. She was 19.
“When she passed, all my constructs about the world and the way things are came crumbling down,” Carly said. “I questioned everything I knew to be true. Yet, I rebuilt and kept going. A loss like that never leaves you, and I know that it has shaped the person I am now in a lot of ways. She is very much a part of me and my story, in everything that I continue to do.”
Carly Wopat has played professional beach volleyball after college — at 6’2” tall, with powerful arms and legs that sent the discus flying in high school, she is a stunning sight — and now she is applying her strength and her athleticism as a firefighter with the Los Angeles City Fire Department (LAFD).
She sat for an interview recently, wearing a T-shirt inscribed with the words: EARNED / NEVER GIVEN.
“It’s my probationary year,” she said. “The [LAFD] culture is machismo. Only three percent are female. I am very physically capable. I have a Stanford degree; I can learn fast, do a job well. Every day is a challenge, setting up a foundation for my career.”
One of her jobs, she said, is “to throw ladders.” Besides fires, she and her crew have responded to car crashes, gunshot victims, and other medical emergencies. “It’s not an easy job, not a low-risk job,” she said. But she never wavers, because she feels Sam pushing her, just as they pushed each other on the volleyball court. “She’s a big part of the reason I pursue firefighting,” Carly said. “There are a lot of reasons to quit, to back out of a hot fire. She’s a reason to keep going.”
For a long time, it was difficult for Carly to talk about her sister’s suicide. “When tragedy happens, you feel very much alone,” she said. “We’re much more relatable than we think we are. It’s easier to talk about, the more things I’ve gone through. My life experiences with hard things help me in situations when I’m dealing with family members, or trying to comfort somebody hurt critically.”
The Wopat twins seemed to have it made when they got into Stanford, but there were risks to being high achievers. “The higher up you go in life, the more you excel, you create more expectations,” Carly said. “There are a lot of pressures, a lot of stressors. You have to learn to cope with failure. It’s not something that comes naturally. On the bright side, you come out a lot stronger.”
Sometimes, though, an incomprehensible darkness can engulf even a strong college athlete. It happened to Sam Wopat a decade ago. Since March 1 of this year, it has happened to three outstanding young women: Katie Meyer, a Stanford soccer goalkeeper from Newbury Park; Sarah Shulze, a Wisconsin distance runner from Oak Park; and Lauren Bernett, a James Madison softball star.
As Carly Wopat said, the sense of loss never goes away; the passing years do not obliterate a lingering sadness. But she has found a way to deal with it, and her family has spearheaded a project that preserves the memory of the Carly-Sam combo in a tangible way. Next to the Dos Pueblos stadium are four pristine beach volleyball courts. The name of the complex: Twin Palms.
HALL OF FAME INDUCTEES
Santa Barbara Athletic Round Table: Mike Berg, San Marcos golf standout; Cyrus Brunner, nine-time Dos Pueblos letterman, honored posthumously; Kami Craig, SBHS water polo player and two-time U.S. Olympic gold medalist; Alfonso Guzman, pioneer SBHS soccer star; David Medina, CIF player of the year for Carpinteria’s undefeated 1987 football team; Heather Olmstead, successful BYU volleyball coach after playing at Carpinteria; Mary Jo Swalley, a prominent swimming official; and Carly Wopat.
Gaucho Athletics: Jennifer Borcich, four-time All-Big West soccer player; Tom Harris, decathlete who finished sixth in the 1984 Olympic Trials; Damon Jones, baseball alumnus who earned a law degree and recently became assistant general manager and legal counsel of the Los Angeles Dodgers; Chad Peschke, infielder who never missed a game in four years and is UCSB’s all-time hits leader; and the 1988 men’s volleyball team that extended its season to the last points of a five-set defeat to USC in the NCAA championship match.
Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for all college students in the U.S., according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, which recommends this postscript: If you or someone you know is exhibiting warning signs of suicide, seek help by calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-TALK (8255).