Gene Selznick is 70 years old. He rides his 1100 Yamaha motorcycle and dances up a storm whenever he can.
Selznick also is the coach of Olympic beach volleyball hopefuls Holly McPeak and Misty May. In the funkiest of Olympic sports, it is the 70-year-old who can offer knowledge learned at the beach in Santa Monica 50 years ago that will, Selznick is convinced, lead McPeak and May onto the Olympic team.
May, 22, loves learning from Selznick. “On the windiest day at the beach, Gene, being 70 years young, had to chase one of our balls that was being blown down the beach. It took him awhile before he conquered that ball. That’s the best laugh we’ve had at practice.”
But there is something that May admires about Selznick. “Gene has the hardest stomach this side of the Mississippi,” May says. “Gene claims it is a six-pack but we claim it is an alien.”
Joking with the ladies is a talent Selznick has always had. “Definitely a ladies man,” Bernie Holtzman says. Eight years older than Selznick, Holtzman was already a regular at State Beach when Selznick first came down. “Gene was 17 years old, sort of gangly and thin,” Holtzman says. “State Beach, at that time, had the best players in the world. I and my partner, not being beaten at that time, felt it was not appropriate that this 17-year-old challenge us. We figured we’d beat him 8-0 and chase him off the beach. We beat him. But it was 15-13 and I said, ‘This kid has potential.’ And Gene went on to become a dominant figure on the beach.”
Selznick won more beach championships than he can count, and he was a member of several national indoor teams, more than he would care to recount. He wasn’t named to the first U.S. Olympic men’s volleyball team in 1964 because he was feuding with team leaders over rules interpretations. So it would be Selznick’s great pleasure to accompany May and McPeak to Sydney as a coach.
How Selznick made volleyball his daily passion, how he decided to be at the beach every day, Selznick has no absolute answer. He loved the sport, played it in high school at Manual Arts, and in the service. He came home from Okinawa, where he was stationed in the Korean War and where he played volleyball of course, and went right back to the beach.
The volleyball was great fun in those days. Entry fees were $2. It cost 10 cents on the Red Car to get from Hollywood to Santa Monica. The beach guys would figure out ways to have the most recent Miss California beauty pageant winner come down and kiss the winners of whatever tournament was going on.
Selznick would work as a parking lot attendant or valet parker at night and play volleyball all day. Eventually he would own some parking lots. He also managed restaurants--Gladstone’s down at the beach and Windjammer at the corner of Sunset and Doheny. But Selznick has always been involved in volleyball. He played in beach tournaments until he was 45 and has coached ever since.
He has three sons--Bob, Dane and Jack--but Selznick has mostly coached women. “They listen to me better,” Selznick says. “They’re willing to accept my knowledge.”
It was at the 1996 Olympics when Selznick first took notice of McPeak. McPeak and then-partner Nancy Reno were heavy medal favorites. But the two spent the summer bickering. They ended up with no medal but Selznick liked what he saw of McPeak.
“She was playing hard to the end,” Selznick says.
“Holly didn’t lose the Olympics, her partner did. After Holly lost, I introduced myself and told her some things I thought she could do better.”
McPeak says, “Some of Gene’s comments really bothered me at first. But my boyfriend encouraged me to have an open mind and entertain some of Gene’s thoughts and ideas and I did.
“Gene has so much technical knowledge and really wants us to be the best team in the world.”
McPeak and May didn’t get together until last fall. Two American teams can qualify for the Olympics but the process involves earning points at FIVB tournaments over a two-year period. McPeak and May missed all but one of last year’s events and they are fifth among the American teams. They finished second last week in Rosarito, Mexico, ahead of all the Americans and losing only to a top-rated Brazilian team, 15-13, in the finals.
“They’re going to make it,” Selznick says. “They will be a great team. They listen to me.”
When Selznick can’t travel, he calls McPeak and May. Or they call him.
“In every tournament I play in,” May says, “all I hear in my head when I go up to hit is Gene’s voice saying ‘Whack it.’ It’s like Gene is right there with us.”
Diane Pucin can be reached at her e-mail address: email@example.com.