Yang Xilan and the gang were just too good. Yang did the setting, her teammates did the swatting, and China’s women’s volleyball squad made quick work of its first-round match with the United States, 15-9, 15-5, 15-7, Tuesday at the Hanyang University gymnasium, re-establishing itself as the Olympic team to beat. The Chinese looked hungry from the moment the match began, and an hour later, still looked hungry.
For Laurel Kessel of the U.S. side, though, there was little agony in defeat. Kessel thought this day would never come. Her Olympic debut. The debut she was supposed to make in Moscow. A volleyball game against the Chinese, gold medalists in 1984 and favorites for 1988. A volleyball game requiring far greater spills and skills than most other women 34 years old were able to manage.
When Jimmy Carter said nyet to the 1980 Summer Olympics, our netters were all dressed up with no place to go. Kessel had little choice but to retire and return to the so-called real world. She took a coaching job at the University of New Mexico. After 7 years as a setter with the U.S. national team, her volleyball days were numbered, her Olympic dream over.
Little did Kessel suspect that in 1987, Taras (Terry) Liskevych, the U.S. coach, would be so concerned about a lack of depth that he would contact an old lady in Albuquerque and beg her to come out of retirement. Kessel jumped at the chance, on legs that still had some spring in them. She took a leave of absence from the college faculty and joined up, going back on the long, long road--to the Soviet Union for the Chinilin tournament, to Hong Kong for the Mikasa Super Four, to Cuba for the NORCECA Championships, to China for the Yan Wu Cup, to Indianapolis for the Pan American Games, all forks on the trail to Seoul.
“It takes a special kind of person to be 34 and out there hustling with 19-year-olds and 24-year-olds,” Liskevych said. “Her passion has always been her greatest asset, especially her passion to play in the Olympics. Laurel Kessel is still going to be playing volleyball when she’s 72.”
There she was, as her first Olympic match began, right alongside pony-tailed Keba Phipps, 19.
“I was never that young,” Kessel joked later.
Oh, yes she was. She was an outstanding player at San Diego’s Crawford High School. Then she went to San Diego State and made some history, playing with the highly ranked Aztec men’s team. For someone not constructed along the lines of the 6-foot 3-inch Phipps but a compact 5-7, she made up in effort and knowledge what she lacked as a physical specimen, setting up spikes impeccably, making superb double-fisted saves, flipping a changeup over her left shoulder when a spike seemed in order, leaving the blockers waving at air.
Nobody’s out there playing Olympic volleyball at 34. Wilt Chamberlain can say what he wants, but the oldest U.S. Olympic men’s team player, Craig Buck of Tarzana, just turned 30, and one of his valuable assets is that he is only about 4 inches shorter than Wilt. It says something for Kessel that the next-oldest woman in the United States’ starting lineup, Deitre Collins of Lancaster, is 26, just as it says something for Collins that she’s out there playing in a knee brace the size of a Hyundai.
As the opening round of the Olympics approached, Kessel heard from old friends. “Some of my old 1980 teammates got in touch,” she said. “Patty Dowdell called. She’s coaching now at DePauw (Ind.) University. Sharon Moore’s teaching high school in Cincinnati, and she had all the kids in her class send me a big card and sign it. Janet Baier sent me a good-luck telegram. They’re all back home, watching me.”
And envious of you?
“I wouldn’t say that,” Kessel said, laughing. “They probably have a pretty good idea of how sore I am right now.
“When I made the decision to retire, I was happy with it. I never regretted it. But I regretted missing this. When Terry approached me again, I said: ‘I just gotta do that.’ You don’t get many second chances in life.”
Kessel knew the U.S. team was in deep against the Chinese, and so did the coach. What they didn’t know is how nervous everybody would be. You can prepare for a lot of different things, and Liskevych went so far as to take his squad to Utah for a week and simulate everything from opposition styles of play to unpredictable occurrences such as the arena lights going out, or disturbances from the crowd.
There are four teams in the U.S. team’s pool, including Brazil and Peru, and Liskevych, having his choice of a first opponent, went after the best. “With Cuba not here, I felt the Chinese were going to be the best team in the Olympics, and that we might be a little nervous in our first game,” Liskevych said. “Well, I’d rather be nervous against China, a team you’d have trouble beating under any conditions, than be nervous against Brazil and Peru.
“There are only two certainties in this tournament--3-0 gets you in the next round and 0-3 gets you out. Everything else is uncertain. You can be 2-1 and not get in, or 1-2 and make it. So, you’d better beat the teams you’re supposed to beat.”
There was something of a false start, with the United States pulling in front, 4-0, in the first game, and forcing the Chinese into a timeout to regroup. Did they ever regroup. They scored 45 of the next 62 points, with the veteran player, Yang, making one expert play after another, keeping the U.S. team off balance. China opened big leads in the second game (9-3) and the third (8-2) and coasted from there, the final spike landing just beyond Kessel’s diving reach.
“When we started off, everything clicked,” said U.S. outside hitter Caren Kemner. “Then we just kind of backed off, while they remained consistent. We were a little jittery. Most of us never dreamed we’d ever be on the Olympic floor, so we’re a little excited, and we’re going to make some mistakes. We’re also going to play some great ball before this is over.”
Kessel, who did dream she would be on this floor, was impressed, as she has been so many times before, with the Chinese. “They didn’t get rattled,” she said. “They never seemed to lose their composure, and we were a little erratic. Their experience showed. I don’t think anybody feels too badly about the match, though. We knew we were up against the best.”
With luck, the Americans will still get a shot at a medal, and Kessel will try to set it up. That’s what she’s best at.
“We might not win the silver, the way the U.S. did in 1984, but we’ve come this far, and we’ll go as far as we can,” Kessel said.
She didn’t wait this long to give up now.