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For years the best volleyballs in the world were stamped MADE IN JAPAN. And the best women players came from that nation, too. Somehow the same country that produced the serene geisha also could produce the dervish defender who would fling herself around a court so adroitly and with such abandon that opponents felt they were smashing balls at a transistorized retrieving device devised by Hitachi.
But the Japanese weren't alone in regularly pounding U.S. women's volleyball teams. Even Peru trounced the U.S. This was especially humiliating because volleyball is as American as a Big Mac, having been invented by William G. Morgan of Holyoke, Mass. in 1895. By the time it became an Olympic sport in Tokyo in 1964, the U.S. women could only finish fifth in a field of six—and that was the high point. Four years later they were last in a field of eight, and they haven't even been able to qualify for the two most recent Olympic Games.
But cheer up, patriots, there are indications of a turnaround. The U.S. has done well lately in tournaments in Bulgaria, South Korea, China and the Soviet Union, so well, in fact, that there is actually a good chance America will qualify for the Moscow Games. And Sunday night in Hilo, Hawaii, there was a result that probably shorted out Sonys all over the globe: the U.S. and Japanese national teams finished a grueling 29-day tour, and the U.S. won 20 matches to eight.
One could point out that this is not an Olympic year, or that Japan left its best spiker home, which it did, or that the visitors couldn't get their customary supply of sushi in places like Springfield, Mass. But an official of the U.S. Volleyball Association was having none of it. "How long has it been since we dominated anybody with JAPAN on their shirts?" he asked.
"Four years ago last June a U.S. team toured Japan," said Don Green, father of U.S. setter Debbie Green. "It won only one game against first- and second-level teams. It played Japan's national team twice and scored an average of only three points a game."
This year's tour began Oct. 2 in Anchorage and whizzed through the Pacific Northwest, the Rockies, the Midwest (where 12,942 showed up for the match in Minneapolis, the largest volleyball crowd in U.S. history), the East, Texas and California before winding up in Hilo.
Even by the time the tour left Muncie, Ind., on Oct. 16, the U.S. had taken command (13-3) over the team that had won the gold medal at Montreal. Flo Hyman, who is 6'5", had established herself as the most powerful spiker, Patty Dowdell as the best blocker and Green as the best setter.
There are three reasons for the American team's quick improvement. First, a youth development program was established in Orange County, Calif. five years ago. Second, the U.S. Olympic Committee has set up a year-round training center, run by the USVA, in Colorado Springs, where most of the best American players have worked out. And third, these women are being pushed hard by their coach, Arie Selinger, a former Israeli paratrooper.
No one would mistake one of Selinger's practice sessions for a Junior League charity ball. Again and again, the players leap at the net with weights strapped to their ankles. Setters set hundreds of balls into a canvas bin—behind them. They run wind sprints until they get wobbly. In a favorite drill, Selinger mounts a platform on one side of the net and spikes ball after ball, while the women on the other side have to keep the balls off the floor, running, bending low or diving after them. In another drill, Selinger stands on the court and repeatedly throws balls while three women dive, dig, roll, get up and reverse direction in a figure-eight pattern Selinger obviously picked up from the Marquis de Sade.
After a few hours of this the players are exhausted. Or, in Selinger's view, ready for an hour or two of hard scrimmaging.