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For Merja Connolly, Olympics Run in the Family

August 21, 1986|RAY RIPTON | Times Staff Writer

Can a young woman pass up a chance to make a U. S. Olympic team if her father and mother won Olympic gold medals and each competed in several Games?

She can't if she is Merja Connolly, the 6-foot, 23-year-old daughter of Harold, who won the hammer throw at the Melbourne Games in 1956, and Olga, the 1956 gold medalist in the discus as a member of the Czechoslovakian team.

A volleyball and basketball star at Culver City High School, Merja (pronounced Maria) was later an All-American UCLA middle blocker who led the Bruins to an NCAA volleyball championship in 1984. She also was a co-captain of the U. S. team of collegiate volleyball players that finished fourth in the 1985 World University Games.

A cinch to go to the Seoul Games in 1988? You might think so.

Matter of Money

But when tryouts were held in San Diego in June, 1985, for the team that will represent the U. S. in volleyball at the 1988 Olympics, Merja was forced to pass. Instead, because she needed the money, she signed to play professional volleyball in Italy and joined the Parma team last September. (Under Olympic rules, her professional volleyball experience does not disqualify her from competing in the Games.)

Early in the season with Parma, a team in Italy's top pro league for women, Connolly went up to block a ball in a game and came down with a jolt, badly injuring her ankle, which put her out for most of the rest of the season.

She thinks that the injury involved ligament damage but that it was also "aggravated severely by improper therapy." After trying to play in a few games in November, she found she couldn't go on. She sat on the bench for the rest of the season and returned to the United States where arthroscopic surgery was performed last April to correct the problem.

Since then, she has been undergoing therapy, training hard at UCLA--where she also completed course work for a degree in communications--and trying to get back in shape to play volleyball again.

Pros or Olympics?

The question is what team she will play for when she regains top form: Parma or the U. S.? Parma begins its season in September. Coach Terry Liskevych and his U. S. team will be playing in the women's world championships, which begin Sept. 1 and end Sept. 12 in Czechoslovakia.

If your dad competed in four Olympics and your mother in five, the question is rhetorical. Merja is going for the Olympic gold and passing up the lire she could make with Parma, which wanted her back.

Liskevych said that Connolly is not yet 100% recovered physically and therefore would be unable to try out for the squad he will take to the world championships in September. He said he will determine most of the players he will take to Czechoslovakia next week.

However, he added that he will "definitely give Merja a tryout, but it will take place sometime in October. . . . It was unfortunate that she didn't get to try out last summer. But we think highly of Merja as a person and a potential player and would like to see her get a chance."

Italy Fascinates Her

That's all she wants, and she plans to make the most of it.

But passing up a chance to play again in Italy, a country that beguiled her with its culture and sunny climate, was not an easy decision.

She said Parma is "really a good organization and paid me all the way through" the seven-month season, even though she missed most of it with her injury. Her salary, she said, was about $2,000 a month and the team provided her an apartment and a car, "a little, teeny Fiat."

She said Italy turned out to be more of a cultural than an athletic experience. She toured much of the country with the team, learning about the customs, art and cuisine and picking up some of the language from her Italian teammates.

"I really love it over there. I wouldn't mind living over there at all," she said.

Italy Must Wait

She said the Parma management had been calling her, asking her to play, and that she knew she had to make a decision. She decided to try to make the U. S. team, saying that she knew "it was much more important for me to play on the national team. Italy is going to be there a long time for me."

Making the U. S. team will be no cinch. Coach Liskevych, who previously coached at University of the Pacific, said Connolly will be trying to break into a lineup that represents a "Who's Who of everyone in college volleyball."

Her chief competition, he said, will probably come from Paula Weishoff, the former USC star from Torrance who played on the 1984 Olympic silver medalists, and Caren Kemner, a top player from the University of Arizona. Weishoff and Kemner can play either middle blocker or outside hitter and Merja probably will be asked to switch at those positions if she makes the team, Liskevych said.

Merja has been training hard for her second chance--running, jumping, swimming and riding a stationary bicycle. She expects to be in condition and strong enough for her October tryout.

Total Determination

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