Members of U.S. Women's Volleyball Team Virtually Dedicated Their Lives to Winning a Gold Medal; Instead, They Had to Settle for a Silver Medal, but in Looking Back on the Experience . . . : THEY'D DO IT AGAIN

Times Staff Writer

Some of them dedicated nearly a third of their lives to their dream. They did almost nothing but train. They put off marriage. They didn't go to school. They didn't work.

Some say they left their youth in a pool of sweat on a gym floor.

They were described as robots, automatons. Their program was compared to those developed in the Soviet Bloc, where Olympic athletes are churned out like cars on a General Motors assembly line. They trained and prepared longer and more vigorously than any professional team.

Their coach, who survived a Nazi concentration camp during World War II, was described as a modern-day Svengali who used intimidation to shape his team.

When they lost in the Olympic final to China, at least one columnist wrote that, in a way, their defeat was a victory for America.

A parent of one of the players said that the team had lived through hell, adding that the players are much happier and healthier today.

And, yet, the 12 members of last year's U.S. Olympic women's volleyball team are almost unanimous in saying they would go through it all again.

The eight-hour-a-day practices. The aches. The pains. The intensity. The pressure. The exhaustion. The mind games. The six-week training sessions in Japan. Christmases spent in foreign lands, half a world away from their families. Sleeping in the gym. Doing laundry by hand. The repetition. The tedium. The test of body and character.

It was grueling, they said, and it was a grind, a long, seemingly endless road to the Olympics. And there was no questioning Coach Arie Selinger's authority. You did it his way, or you didn't do it at all.

But there was a recurring theme to the players' comments: Nobody forced them to stay.

"I wasn't handcuffed and dragged into practice every day," said Rita Crockett, who spent more than six years on the team. "Nobody had any hold on me. If I didn't want to do it, all I had to do was walk out and go home."

Said Carolyn Becker, who devoted 11 years to training for the Olympics: "It wasn't like we were being held hostage or something."

The 30 or so players who left the program between 1978 and 1984, criticizing it as they walked away, are losers, the Olympians said.

Said Julie Vollertsen, a five-year veteran: "I don't think anyone likes to lose. And when you leave the program, you're failing. You're losing. I think that's why they had the bitter feelings, because they couldn't complete the program. Maybe they weren't strong enough. Maybe they didn't complete their goal. And by not doing that, they failed. And no one likes to fail."

Although they fell short of their goal of winning gold medals, the Olympians say they are satisfied, or only slightly disappointed, with the silver medals that accompanied their loss to China. No previous American team had ever won a medal in Olympic volleyball competition.

Only one of them is still on the national team, but only three of them totally rule out the possibility that they might return in time for the 1988 Games. Five say they'll probably rejoin the team before the end of next summer.

All of the Olympians--who range in age from 21 to 31--are still involved in volleyball. Eight of them played last winter in Italy or Japan, retaining their amateur status while earning more than $40,000 as employees of the companies that sponsored their teams.

Debbie Green reportedly earned at least twice that much through a series of clinics, although all she'll say is, "It's nothing like Mary Lou or Carl Lewis, but I'm doing pretty well."

Kim Ruddins returned to USC, Laurie Flachmeier turned down a chance to play in Italy because she had an injured shoulder, and Becker played on a Brooklyn-based team that won a national "wallyball" tournament.

Becker is the only one who's married, although Green and Joe Vargas, an Olympic water polo player, plan to store their silver medals under the same roof in the future. They'll be married Oct. 12.

How would the Olympians describe their experience?

"It was the greatest thing I think I'll ever do," said Flachmeier, who signed on in 1978. "I think it's going to be tough for me to find a challenge as great as what I've already been through."

But Becker probably best summed up the feelings of her teammates when she was asked how she would describe to her 2 1/2-month-old daughter, Stacy, the ups and downs, the total dedication of training day after day, year after year for a tournament that lasted less than 10 days.

"I might not have to," she said. "She might go through it, too."

The drive toward the 1984 Games began for the women's volleyball team in 1978, when the national team merged with the junior national team. Actually, it started out as a drive toward Moscow and 1980, but President Carter's boycott ended that.

Seven players--Becker, Green, Crockett, Vollertsen, Flachmeier, Flo Hyman and Sue Woodstra--decided to devote four more years to the pursuit of their dream, pointing toward 1984.

There was talk of the players returning to school in 1981, with training becoming less intense, but it didn't happen.

Unlike other U.S. teams--including the men's volleyball team, which incorporated a job program into its training schedule--Selinger's group did almost nothing but play volleyball. The women traveled the world, playing about 100 matches a year. And when they weren't traveling, they practiced--eight hours a day, six days a week.

In a word, these women were committed.

"Our training program the year of the Olympics was really intense," Green told ESPN. "We had three practice sessions (daily), plus running in the morning.

"We converted the offices in the gym into bedrooms because sometimes we wouldn't get done until 10:30, 10 o'clock at night, and have to be back at the gym at 7:45 in the morning. So I decided, instead of driving 10 minutes (to her apartment), that this was going to be my home, the gymnasium.

"That is where we were training for the Olympics and I just wanted to commit myself and not waste 20 minutes in transportation, so I just lived in the gym. After practice, I'd go up to my room, eat dinner, go to sleep, wake up, walk downstairs and start running."

It had to be done, the Olympians believe, because the other teams were doing it.

"It was a necessity to keep up with the other teams," Crockett said. "To keep up with the Joneses, as they say."

Said Woodstra, who devoted 11 years to training for the Olympics: "The Chinese were at the same stage we were in 1978. We were fifth in the world championships and they were sixth. So we went up the ladder together.

"We could see the type of training they were doing, and we had to find a way to match it and try to better it."

The Americans improved--they were third in the quadrennial World Championships in 1982--but as they did there was increased grumbling from players who had left the team.

Said Dale Keough, who spent nine months in the program and compared it to a Communist-run organization: "The (U.S.) girls have become foreigners in their own country."

Jo Ellen Vrazel, who left in 1981 after a year in the program, said Selinger was "trying to force a circle into a square."

Those who stayed disagreed.

"Everybody thought that we were just crazy and that we all had one mind, and it was called Selinger's mind," Flachmeier said. "I was really strongly against that belief. But there was no changing these people's minds.

"All we could do was just keep going for what we wanted to do and if we wanted to play in the Olympics and achieve our personal goals, that's the way we had to go through it and wanted to go through it. We chose to do it. And I think that really strengthened each individual."

Hyman, one of Selinger's outspoken backers, was disturbed by the criticism.

"Some people don't appreciate hard work," she said.

Green called Selinger a strict coach, but said, "Our attitude was, if you're going to go for something, go for it all the way."

If that meant missing out on some social things, so be it.

"There are some things we missed, but look at how many people who have the social life who would give anything to be in the Olympics," Green said. "I realize that now in talking to people. They say, 'You're so lucky. You're so lucky.' At the time I was on the team, practicing six and eight hours a day, I was thinking, 'Me, lucky?' "

When Green, Becker and Woodstra joined the junior team in 1973, they were still in high school, but they were practicing about 40 hours a week, with double sessions on weekends.

"I didn't do anything at my high school, but now it doesn't seem like any big deal," Becker said. "So what, a prom. It's not that big of a deal. I missed some things, but I got to do a lot more than other people got to do."

Foreigners in their own country? You won't convince these women.

Crockett refused even to say she made any sacrifices.

"If I had, I would have left the team because I would have been unhappy," she said. "I felt like I did everything I needed to do. I was happy. I had a social life. I went shopping. I did everything any normal 25-year-old American female would do."

Whatever anybody might have thought of Selinger's methods, they resulted in the U.S. team becoming one of the best in the world. The Americans were no worse than co-favorites, along with China and Japan, going into the Games.

But the U.S. Volleyball Assn. tried to fire Selinger in 1982, reportedly for insubordination. He kept his job, however, when the players came to his defense.

"We felt strongly about him," said Chisholm, an Olympian who rejoined the national team last month. "But I also think that changing coaches such a short time before the Olympics just wouldn't work out. It was just too scary."

The national program, now under Coach Terry Liskevych, who replaced Selinger last fall, differs from Selinger's program. A job program will begin next month and the women will practice only about four hours each morning before going to work in the afternoon.

"I've talked to Terry and the way it's set up now seems more realistic," said Jeanne Beauprey, who plans to rejoin the team next summer. "It's not all volleyball. There are other things in life."

Liskevych said he has used the men's program as a model for his team.

"I think it's a very bad model to support someone playing volleyball without any career orientation or without a college degree," he said.

Al Monaco, executive director of the U.S. Volleyball Assn., hinted that the experience of the 1984 women's team will be chalked up to experience.

"We had to give more time to the training of these young athletes to bring their level of skill up to a respectable level," Monaco told United Press International. "We didn't take college grads (only one of the players had a college degree) and we didn't have experience to know what was right and wrong.

"So we tried to support the team full time so they could train a lot so they could get good in a hurry. Looking back on it, it probably was not the right approach, but at the time it was the only approach we thought would work."

But will less training mean better training?

"It's hard to say because we did win a silver medal with a certain type of training," Crockett said. "Until I see another volleyball team win a gold medal not training like that, I'm going to have to say our way was the best way to go.

"There's no way you can win the Olympics Games without training."

The Americans, of course, did not win the Olympic Games.

They went in as the most experienced team in the tournament, a rarity for an American team in amateur athletics.

"We probably could have found better talent but these athletes who decided to stay deserved to stay in the program because we imposed on them the boycott," Selinger said during the Games. "We owe them this chance."

They took advantage of it.

They had to rally from a two-game deficit to beat Brazil in a preliminary match, but they reached the final. The Chinese, who had lost to them in a preliminary match four nights earlier, rolled over them, 16-14, 15-3, 15-9, to win the gold medal.

After the Americans had beaten Peru in the semifinals, Selinger said that, regardless of the outcome of the final, his team's mission had been accomplished.

But that was clearly a ruse to ease the pressure on his players.

Said Green: "I thought unless we won, I'd have wasted all those years. The other girls might say, 'We made it to the final. That was our goal.' But me, personally, I was very disappointed.

"As the months go on, I'm less disappointed, but right after the Olympics I was very down."

The loss wasn't as devastating to any of the other players.

"No athlete is satisfied with second best at the time," Crockett said. "But then you consider the only team that beat you is the best team in the world. The way I see it, we didn't lose the gold medal. We never had the gold medal. We'd never had a silver medal. I'm proud of a silver medal. Only 12 women won silver medals for volleyball in the 1984 Olympics."

But as the final point of the championship match touched off firecrackers and chants of "China beat America! China beat America," in the streets of Peking, so, too, did it touch off tears in the eyes of most of the American players.

And then the Americans retreated to their training headquarters in Fountain Valley for a party that lasted long into the night.

"The tears were from relief and happiness and sadness--all things mixed together," Flachmeier said. "You couldn't even put a finger on what they all were for. The whole drive, the whole road was ending. And all the hard work was ending. And yet, all the friendships and all the good times were at an end, too.

"It was really hard to distinguish the feelings."

It had been grueling and painful and stressful and frustrating, but it had also been enjoyable, fulfilling, satisfying. A worthwhile experience, the Olympians called it.

"It tested every aspect of a person," Beauprey said.

It might not have been Utopia, exactly, but it wasn't hell.

Reflecting again on the time she spent on the team, Crockett called it a learning experience.

"Being on the team helped me grow up and helped me understand life with other people because I got everything I wanted when I was a little girl," she said. "I was spoiled. I think being on a team and being together with so many people helped me learn to have responsibility to other people, which I think helps me now as a person.

"Not everything is given to you. You have to give to other people, too.

"It's like these players are sisters to me. I think the experience will help me in life. I don't see anything bad about anything that I did within those six years.

"I'm happy. I'm content. I made a name for myself in volleyball. I've been all over the world. I competed in the finals of the Olympics. I'm a silver medalist."

And now, it's on to other things. Crockett and the others have some catching up to do.

"I want to start another life," Crockett said. "I want to find somebody to love me. I have other goals now.

"I'm not going to say I want to settle down and get married. I'm not going to go that far. But could you put my phone number in (this story)? I'm 5-9, 140, cute, nice-looking black female, looking for a husband. Not really. But maybe a nice steady boyfriend. I like 'em tall and handsome."

Indeed, there is life after Olympic volleyball.

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