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"The fact that the women work so hard is difficult for people in this country to understand," says Marlon Sano, an assistant coach. "They just can't relate to it. The apex of sports here is pro sports. These women are pioneers."
"The rewards aren't monetary," says team captain Sue Woodstra, 27, of Colton, Calif., who looks forward to getting a dog, not a contract, after the Olympics, "and a lot of people don't understand it."
But the result of such single-minded-ness is that the U.S. team is one of the world's best, ranking in the top three with China and Japan. Regardless of how the team fares at the Olympics, it has already done remarkable things.
"It's the biggest success story I've seen in a long time," says Vic Braden, the tennis pro who's an avid supporter of the team. "Coming from nothing to being so highly ranked. So few people really understand what they've done."
Ten years ago, women's world-class volleyball was as much a part of the American scene as cricket or ostrich racing. Then in 1975, the board of directors of the U.S. Volleyball Association decided to create a full-time program, realizing that the only way America would ever become competitive would be to duplicate the demanding programs in other countries, specifically Japan.
A national team was created and based in Pasadena, Texas, and Selinger was hired as its full-time coach. He had guided the Israeli women's team and was just finishing up his doctorate in the physiology of exercise at the University of Illinois. In 1978, Selinger merged his squad with a strong club team from Westminster, Calif. that was coached by Chuck Erbe and that included Woodstra, Carolyn Becker and Debbie Green, all of whom are on the '84 national team. The combined team then moved to Colorado Springs. In its first year, it finished fifth in the world championships and in other matches stunningly thrashed such powers as the Soviet Union, China, South Korea and Japan.
Inspired by the Japanese women's coach, Shigeo Yamada, a poet and philosopher who believes in immersing his team in the game, Selinger has insisted that his players' sole focus be the game—breathing, thinking, being volleyball. "The reason we have to train like this is because our competition does it," says Selinger over and over. "Otherwise we'd never win."
Though his hard-driving ways may have caused some fine players to leave the program, his team stands behind him.
"Arie got us all together and convinced us that this is what we need to be doing," says Laurie Flachmeier, 27, an exceptional blocker from Garland, Texas. "He told us, 'It's going to take all your time and all your dedication.' He's very persistent. When he wants something done, he doesn't stop till it's done. Correctly. Some people say he's obsessed, but you need to have that kind of devotion to succeed."
The U.S. team, whose style combines the quickness and agility of the Asians with the height and power of the Europeans, has won more than 90% of its matches in the past two years. In 1982 the U.S. won a bronze medal in the world championships and in '83 won six gold medals at world-class events, including the Varna Cup, in which it defeated the world-champion Chinese.