Olivia Mariucci was desperate to know if she made the team.
The Templeton middle schooler asked her dad every day whether he heard any updates from the head coach of a very special track and field program.
When she finally got the good news during a jaunt with the folks in the family car, Olivia celebrated until something shook the excitement out of her and replaced it with laughter.
The sight and sound of her parents crying.
Bob and Lisa Mariucci couldn’t contain their emotion upon learning that Olivia had been selected to join a track and field team of Italian-American youths to travel to Rome for a meet with some of the best youth athletes in Italy.
“The opportunity for any kid to have that, let alone be my daughter, it was just amazing to me,” said Bob, the Cuesta College athletic director. “The history of our Italian heritage made me proud, but it was more my daughter having the opportunity of a lifetime.”
Olivia was one of 12 children, six boys and six girls, brought together by CONI USA, a domestic arm of the Italian Olympic Committee dedicated to athletic development and cultural enrichment.
She competed in the Giochi della Gioventù — which translates to Youth Games in Italian— throwing the shot put in between sight-seeing trips to places like Vatican City and the Colosseum during a seven day tour the first week of June.
Competitors came from all over Italy, the United States and several other countries.
“It was really fun and a really good experience,” Olivia said. “Mostly, I like meeting new people. I met a lot of new people, and it was really fun competing with them. I was friends with the people I competed with, and it gave me experience in sportsmanship.”
A former Cal Poly assistant coach now working at Cuesta, Julia Pickslay has coached the CONI USA team for the past four years and is charged with recruiting athletes, which can be harder than it would seem.
The big requirement: Candidates between 11 and 13 years old either must have dual citizenship or an Italian passport or boast a parent or grandparent who was born in Italy.
Typically, Pickslay said, most athletes come from tryouts in New York City and Chicago with a sprinkling of kids from California. Arroyo Grande High freshman standout Angela Gemignani geared up for her prep debut as a two-time medalist in the 1,000 meters — traveling to these Games in 2011 and 2012.
Bloodlines and athletic achievement are not the sole criteria. Candidates must also write an essay on the region of Italy they will be visiting and showcase their personalities.
“Once they compete in the marks, every athlete is interviewed by the coaching staff” as well as a CONI delegate, Pickslay said. “We make sure that they show good character. … We like them to show an interest and knowledge of history and heritage, and we like them to show an interest in learning the language.”
In the case of the Mariuccis, Bob’s father Ray left Italy in the early 1930s, arriving in the United States with his three brothers at just 6 years old.
Olivia said she remembered her grandfather telling her stories of his homeland, and Bob said family history was always important to he and his brother Steve, a former San Francisco 49ers and Cal football head coach, while growing up in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
Ray, who Bob said became known as Mr. Bocce Ball for his dedication to playing and promoting the traditional Italian game, died at 90 years old this year, making the trip even more special to the Mariucci family.
“It’s always been at the forefront of our family,” Bob said. “My dad being from Italy, just the history with his family and our family in the United States, we’re just proud of our family’s name.”
Upon making the team, Olivia attended a training camp in East Hampton, N.Y., and emerged as the top female shot-putter by far, Pickslay said — even though it was not her best event.
Olivia actually passed on competing for her middle school track and field team as an eighth-grader to concentrate on her club basketball team in the spring.
But in sixth and seventh grade, she competed in the 800 meters, the shot put and the long jump.
Her best throw in Italy was 23.32 feet, which was not good enough to advance to the event final but helped rekindle her interest in track and field.
Olivia said she plans to join the cross country team at Templeton High this fall and will aim to specialize in the 800 and shot put for the Eagles’ track and field team next spring.
Even more so, the trip motivated her educationally.
“I thought it was going to be way less people,” Olivia said, “and then when I got there, I saw all these people from different countries.
“Everyone knew how to speak English and I realized I should start learning different languages because I couldn’t really talk to them. I now want to learn about other places that I have friends from now.”