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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

July 28, 1985|JERRY CROWE | 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.

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