LONG BEACH — Three years after their skill and zest helped win an Olympic silver medal and a nation's heart, they still sparkle.
Now, on a June morning, they are in the women's volleyball office at Cal State Long Beach, where they are assistant coaches.
One of them, Rita Crockett-Royster, is tall and 29. She has a stately bearing, even in a sweat suit and pregnant.
The other, Debbie Green-Vargas, is short and almost 29. Her broad face--highlighted by eyes inherited not from her American father but from her Korean mother--wears the smile we are used to seeing. Her white shorts accent legs that look sculptured after years of jumping on wooden floors.
They are best friends, so placid and personable away from the volleyball court that it is hard to imagine them as tigresses who crave the frenzied, shrill-voiced world of powerful kill shots and desperate, diving saves.
Yet this competitive instinct still serves them as members of the Los Angeles Starlites, a professional team that recently won the championship of a new circuit called Major League Volleyball.
"It doesn't matter who you play; you still want to kill them," Crockett-Royster said. "That's just my nature. Even today, I want to clean the kitchen better than anyone else."
Green-Vargas agreed: "I still enjoy it when you block someone and it (the ball) hits them in the head. Sometimes I get almost vicious."
In the last year, their lives have been spent in the 49er gym, where they are revered by the college players; in classrooms, where they belatedly pursue degrees; in airports and large-city arenas, where they are fondly greeted, and in the Long Beach apartments they share with their husbands and, in Green-Vargas' case, a baby daughter.
Legends in Volleyball
They are legends in a sport that had none.
"I think the volleyball world still doesn't believe Rita and Debbie are here," says Brian Gimmillaro, coach of the 49er women's team, who persuaded them to join him before the 1986 season.
Gimmillaro calls Crockett-Royster "the best all-around woman player ever in this country" and Green-Vargas "the best setter in the history of this country, the only truly international-level setter we've ever had."
As a setter, Green-Vargas specializes in lofting the ball near the net so that a quick, powerful, high-jumping player such as Crockett-Royster can spike it into the opponents' court at speeds greater than 70 m.p.h.
The brief summer romance we had with these women refuses to fade from memory. On the walls of the volleyball office are framed reminders of that time.
Green-Vargas, a sapling among redwoods, personified the U.S. team's spirit. She exhibited an uncontainable joy after every play, giddily congratulating and encouraging each teammate. As a Starlite, she still played that way.
Now she reveals a shocking truth:
"A lot of it is acting. I know what's expected of me: to keep players (from dwelling) on mistakes. I'm a lot different than I am on the court. A lot of people think I'm bubbly and energetic, and I'm not--I'm pretty quiet."
She was a meek youngster into whom volleyball was drummed by her father, Don Green, who programmed her for the Olympics. "(At age 14) I was so bad," she says.
To improve, she sacrificed a normal life at Westminster High School. Even Friday nights and Saturdays were devoted to setting hundreds of volleyballs into a basketball hoop.
She was always supposed to be too small.
"But she was so talented and tough," Gimmillaro said, "so determined and dedicated, that no one could ever beat her out."
Volleyball changed Green-Vargas, a USC All-American, and gave her a second personality, one of fierce competitiveness.
"She's more relaxed now than she was then (1984)," Crockett-Royster said. "I think she's a better person now. She was under so much pressure."
It is Crockett-Royster who is the more outgoing of the two.
"She's a nut sometimes," Green-Vargas said. "She's the one with the energy."
Crockett-Royster, who played two years in Japan before coming to CSULB, was an all-around athlete in Texas. She was befriended by Green-Vargas in 1978 when they began training for the eventually boycotted 1980 Olympics.
It is impossible not to still hear those '84 chants of "USA! USA!"
"I think it's still a pretty big deal," Crockett-Royster said. "People say, 'I saw you in the Olympics,' like it just happened. To me, the Olympics were fun and I enjoyed it. I didn't think of it as a bad thing that we won the silver (medal). I was one of the few that wasn't upset."
China, which had lost to the United States in an early round, avenged that defeat in the match for the gold medal.
"I was upset," said Green-Vargas, whose years of training had been geared for gold. "Even a year after the Olympics, my thoughts of them weren't that good. They were still 'We lost.' Now, I'm a little more proud of myself."
She keeps her medal in a safe deposit box.
Crockett-Royster, who keeps hers in a china cabinet along with a picture of teammate Flo Hyman, who died in 1986, said the honor of competing in the Olympics was enough of a thrill.
"China just played better that night" is how she looks back on it.
Both feel that their accomplishment changed the image of women's volleyball as a sissy or picnic sport. "I think it put us up there with the rest of the athletes," Green-Vargas said.
Both plan to play pro volleyball for another couple of seasons--if the league survives. In the meantime, Crockett-Royster studies criminal justice and wants to be a sports attorney. Green-Vargas studies communications but has no goal beyond learning "how to speak in front of people without getting nervous."
And Gimmillaro keeps thinking he is the luckiest coach, having such role models to inspire his team.
"(The players) look up to them, they trust them," he said.