Here was the game plan: Lay low. You’re an executive secretary out of her element, Nina. Why, of course you’ll help out where you can and do your best for the group. Drift behind the strivers and Machiavellians that flock to that reality television show of shows, Survivor … be a team player … and do your best to hide the fact there is something more to this gal who works in education administration.
For Nina Acosta ’82, that was the plot. It looked like a great idea: She was soft-spoken, polite, and entirely overlooked at first by the other contestants on the reality show. But, as is the case with so many of our intricate stratagems, a two-story fall into a cargo net changed everything.
The leap was part of the Immunity Challenge—the first physical test in season 24 of Survivor. Jumping from a raised platform, the contestants landed in a rope net before tackling an obstacle course. The fall jarred bodies. One contestant let her arms take the impact and broke her forearm in two places, forcing her to drop out of the competition. When Acosta landed, her torso whipped to the left and her head slammed into the ropes.
It was impossible not to see this and assume the worst. Concussion? A broken jaw?
Acosta was spitting blood but sprang up almost immediately, clambered over the rest of the netting, and darted through the course. Afterward, her fellow islanders gasped at her swollen eyebrow and lip, half of her face super-villain distorted by the fall.
“It definitely hurt,” she admits. At the same time, she says, “It looked a lot worse” than it was. “But it hurt pretty bad.”
Other contestants grew wary: Acosta was in triathlon shape and had just laughed off a two-story face-plant.
Who was this woman?
An 18-year-old Nina Greteman came to Santa Clara from San Gabriel, just east of Los Angeles, in the fall of 1978. She was one of the first women to receive an athletic scholarship following Title IX. She had always played sports, and her hustle and flow on the basketball court brought offers from Arizona State and San Diego State as well as SCU.
“I chose SCU after visiting campus,” she recalls. “Everything was nice, quaint, and I was born and raised Catholic, so going to a Jesuit university made my parents happy.”
What she cared about was basketball. She was also asked to play varsity volleyball—so she did. On the maplewood, she thrived. By her sophomore year, she was starting point guard for the Broncos. Until she suffered an injury that would make the Survivor cargo net fall look like a hangnail.
During a game with St. Mary’s, Acosta experienced a compound fracture of both her tibia and fibula. It was a gruesome leg injury that required a cast “from toe to hip” and two surgeries, nearly two years of healing, and treatments from Dr. Michael Dillingham, the same sports surgeon who operated on football quarterback Joe Montana.
|LAPD: She joined in 1983 and served in the elite Metro Division. Photo courtesy LAPD|
“I did learn a lot from that,” Acosta acknowledges. The injury put her in the hospital for weeks and made it difficult to get around. She had to drop one class and was on the verge of failing political science. But her professor, Eric Hanson, met with her on her dorm steps to talk with her regularly. “Once I broke my leg, I realized I have this tremendous opportunity to get a fantastic education. I became a better person, a lot less self-absorbed.”
Acosta got involved in campus ministry and worked with kids whose parents were incarcerated. She graduated with a degree in political science and briefly considered going on to law school. Meeting a woman from the Los Angeles Police Department at a career fair changed that. What sold her: She’d be near home in Southern California, it was a physical and athletic job, plus the LAPD was actively looking for women interested in law enforcement.
“It’s a male-dominated field, but I always got along well with guys,” she says. “This was an exciting new adventure that was a really good fit for me.”
There is nothing untrue in how Acosta presented herself on Survivor. In fact, she is an executive secretary to the chancellor of the State Center Community College District, based in Fresno, a city of half a million in California’s San Joaquin Valley. Acosta lives in nearby Clovis.
Yet prior to supporting work educating 8,000 community college students, Acosta led a very different life: She joined the LAPD in 1983, served in the elite Metro Division, and worked her way up to a spot as chief security aide for Chief Daryl F. Gates. At 26, she was nominated for female officer of the year for the entire state. And she had her sights set on the prestigious SWAT team—the 60-member cadre that Acosta says had “lots of officers dying to get in, and I was one of them.”
SWAT stands for Special Weapons and Tactics. The LAPD SWAT was the first of its kind in the United States—it was formed by Daryl Gates in 1967 following the Watts Riots, and gave police combat-style training and equipment—and it was one of the most high-profile crime-fighting units in the country. There had never been a woman on the force. But then, no other woman had served as security aide to Gates—who was enough of a lightning rod that his safety was a real concern.
Acosta’s husband at the time, Mike Domlanakes, was a fellow Metro officer. A self-described “good ol’ boy,” as the L.A. Times put it, he was at first skeptical about her joining SWAT. But she convinced him that she could cut it. So, in 1991, Nina Domlanakes applied. It felt like asking to join a club. There was no formalized process at the time, just a grueling fitness test at the Marines’ Camp Pendleton, followed by a training period.
The physical qualifications included running 3 miles in 21 minutes, pull-ups from a dead hang, push-ups, and sit-ups. A natural athlete in the best shape of her life, Acosta breezed through these standards. Same with the shooting qualification. Despite her performance on the test and her record with the department, she was refused entry to SWAT training.
|Home Court: Nina Acosta suited up for the SCU alumnae game this year with daughter Cari, 13. Photo by Joel Acosta|
Two years later she tried again, more confident that the additional experience would make her case stronger. The process had become slightly less opaque, as the evaluations were videotaped. She did even better than she had before: 28 dead-hang pull-ups; only one man beat her. Once again she was denied. Some men who failed the shooting exercise were accepted.
“I really didn’t think in my heart they would deny me,” she says. “I didn’t want to sue them, I just wanted to play with the guys. With over 1,000 women in the department, for them to operate that way was ridiculous.”
Acosta filed a discrimination lawsuit. Apparently in retaliation, someone scribbled black ink on her photo hanging in the Metro Division, the L.A. Times reported. What got back to her, muttered by cops angry at the suit: If she were lying in the street, shot, I wouldn’t save her.
In 1994, Acosta left the police force. She coached volleyball for a while. In 1996, a jury decided the suit in her favor and awarded $2 million in damages. She had divorced since leaving the LAPD. She moved to Clovis, and she married Joel Acosta, a SWAT officer. Nina was at home, bottle-feeding their daughter, when a show caught her attention: 16 people on an island, physical competition, team dynamics. Nina Acosta thought to herself, I’d love to do that someday.
It wasn’t reality television that next brought Acosta into the headlines. In 2008, NPR reached out to Acosta when the SWAT training program admitted Jennifer Grasso. Nearly two decades after Acosta first applied and passed the fitness tests, the department had finally allowed a woman to enter the program.
“I really feel like I deserved to be the first woman in SWAT. So selfishly, it was bittersweet for me,” she told NPR. But she was, she said, “really excited for Jennifer and for other young women.”
OFF THE ISLAND
Once her fellow Survivor contestants saw Acosta’s performance in the physical challenge, she wasn’t flying under the radar among tribe members any more. A clique formed on her team, and infighting spiraled out of control; a member of Acosta’s tribe called the state of their side “anarchy.”
The season had been branded as “The Battle of the Sexes,” with the two tribes divided into all-women and all-men teams. The team of women on which Acosta found herself decided that she had to go. In the second episode she was voted off the island.
Regrets? Returning home after about two months of the sequestration for TV production only increased Acosta’s fondness for family, she says. With three children and a husband who brings flowers by the office every Monday, it’s a good life. When she reflects on the Survivor experience, she’s glad that she was able to show that a 51-year-old mother could be just as tough as anyone else to compete on the show. She was at least 20 years older than most of the other contestants.
“I really felt like keeping my integrity was important,” Acosta says. “I don’t care if you’re on Survivor, the true you comes out under stress—good or bad. As a police officer, I know that.”