Publish date:

A Gold Medal For Showing Mettle

The U.S. men's volleyball team was blown out by Brazil early on, but when it counted it was no contest

Pat Powers, who has a degree in psychology from USC, had gotten himself into quite an exalted mental state by the time the U.S. Olympic volleyball team, of which he's a member, had taken the court against Brazil for the gold medal match Saturday night. Nervous as a flea all day and bewildered by the celebrity he and his theretofore equally unknown teammates had suddenly achieved—"I'm not used to signing autographs," he had complained mildly—Powers had decided to try some self-hypnosis that afternoon. "I pretty much got myself in a trance," he recalls. "Psychology is my background, after all." He awakened from this self-imposed reverie with perceptions heightened, he believes, and when he stared across the net at his adversaries that evening at the Long Beach Convention Center Arena, he saw something hitherto unobserved. "I looked into their eyes, and I just knew we had them," he said later. "I had no doubts about it."

Whatever Powers saw—and he's an athlete, not a mystic—must surely have been there, because the Americans simply demolished the Brazilians, 15-6, 15-6, 15-7, to win the gold medal in an astonishingly one-sided match that took all of 79 minutes. The medal was the first ever won by a U.S. men's volleyball team—the women had won their first medal, a silver, four days earlier—since the sport was incorporated into the Games 20 years ago. The best the men had done was a ninth-place finish in '64 and a seventh in '68. The U.S. hadn't even qualified an Olympic team since 68, a towering embarrassment considering that volleyball was invented in this country 89 years ago by William G. Morgan, a physical education instructor at the Holyoke, Mass. YMCA. Americans certainly haven't done that miserably in that other native game conceived about the same time in nearby Springfield by Dr. Naismith.

The volleyball victory was all the more remarkable because, just the previous Monday, the Brazilians had beaten the U.S. with comparable ease, 15-10, 15-11, 15-2, in a preliminary round match. But the Brazilians were then in a crisis situation, needing a win to stay in the competition, and the U.S. had already assured itself of a semifinal match. "The difference was that this game mattered for us," said U.S. setter-hitter Karch Kiraly on Saturday. "That one didn't." Indeed, the Americans played as if their lives were at stake, serving, blocking and spiking with almost desperate energy. By the end of the second game, even the most myopic fan could see what Powers had observed at the outset—the Brazilians were beaten. "It was funny," said Powers, the star this night. "Once we started playing, everything became so clear. It was as if the game had absolutely come to a standstill. Balls hit 120 miles an hour looked like balloons to me."

Powers's own shots appeared to the Brazilians to be traveling 120 mph or faster. In the three games he was successful on a team-leading 22 of 37 spike attempts. And in helping win the final two points of the concluding game, he powered home a whistling cross-court kill and another mighty shot from the backcourt. Powers, 26, was an All-America at USC, but he also had been cut, at one time or another, from his Santa Monica High team, the national junior team and the national team. "I got cut," he says, "but I never quit." Fittingly enough, the player who had been setting the ball up for Powers most of the night, his old college teammate Dusty Dvorak, got the game-winner on a solo block of a kill attempt. Dvorak, the volleyball equivalent of a point guard, worked with such chilling efficiency that Powers would say, "I could just look at him and know exactly where the ball was going." The victory was hardly a two-man enterprise, though. Steve Timmons converted 17 of his 26 kill attempts, and Kiraly made good on 10 of 22. Craig Buck took part in seven blocks and Aldis Berzins in six.

U.S. coach Doug Beal started the 6'5" Powers and the 6'8" Buck in place of Paul Sunderland, 6'6", and Steve Salmons, a mere 6'4", who were in the lineup during the first game of the loss to Brazil. Powers was instructed to make life disagreeable for Brazilian spiker Mario Xando Oliveira Neto. "We blocked him all night, and he became very conscious of that," said Powers afterward. Oliveira Neto did connect on 19 kills, but he also hit the ball out or into the net three times and was apparently so unhinged by the constant semaphoring in front of him that he also missed on five of his 15 serves. Altogether, the Brazilians, several of whom performed the dramatic run-and-jump power serve, faulted 15 times, as compared with only four by the American team.

Even the exuberance of the Americans' play seemed to frazzle the opposition. The first game ended for Brazil with two service faults, two out-of-bounds kill attempts and a botched setup. The final point of the second game was scored on a Brazilian spike attempt that went long, and the last point of the match came on Dvorak's block. Beal's strategy also called for his servers to keep the ball away from 10-year veteran Bernard Rajzman, the Brazilians' best passer. Rajzman received only 14 serves, compared with the 40 taken by the top American passer, Berzins.

Finally, Beal had cautioned his players to relax for this game and do what comes naturally. "I felt all along we had the best team in the world," he said. "We're not a big volleyball team, but we had been trying to play like one. We were trying to do things we can't do. We're a motion team. Tonight we passed and served much better, and Dusty was superb at getting the ball up, so our strength was matched against their weakness."

Beal seemed to have followed his own advice to the players, for he, too, seemed uncommonly at ease through the evening. Earlier in the week he'd earned a perhaps unwarranted reputation for surliness by responding testily to statements by the media that his team should be the favorite for the gold medal. Such predictions weren't without foundation. The U.S. team had won 24 straight matches entering the Olympics, including four over the world champion Soviet team in May. But Beal, 37, an Ohio State grad who had been on three non-qualifying U.S. teams, likened the hoopla to that accorded the U.S. hockey team in the 1984 Winter Games. Reporters who puffed up his team were, he told them, "stupid, petty and ill-informed." That's quite possibly true, but Beal's reaction hardly seemed appropriate for someone presumably striving to attract public support for his game. By the time the U.S. had won, Beal, who rarely looks happy, had pretty well flunked out as a public relations man.

Beal's behavior was in sharp contrast to that of the man who had been the resident monster of volleyball, women's coach Arie Selinger. After his team had defeated Peru in the semifinals on Aug. 5, Selinger, all humble charm, suggested that his players had by then accomplished their goal, which was to bring the game to national attention. Selinger himself had been largely responsible for arousing the public's curiosity. For nine years he had been running a volleyball operation that seemed more like a prolonged boot camp. At his direction, his women practiced eight hours a day and spent what little leisure time remained talking about practice. All denied, however, that they had in any way been deprived of a normal life.

"It was no sacrifice," said 30-year-old Flo Hyman, a Selinger chattel almost from the beginning. The coach's unusual methods had earned him and his team a rush of pre-Games publicity, which culminated in the team's tearful—and shocking, to the Long Beach crowd—straight-set loss to China in the gold medal match.

For all practical purposes, the women volleyballers had all but reduced their male counterparts to forgotten men, a fact not lost on the men. "I don't think it's necessary to practice eight hours a day," said Powers. "We practice three. The women are more technically oriented. We play more on emotion, and emotion will win for you."

Missing from these Games, of course, were the teams from the Soviet bloc countries. Those who missed them most may have been the players themselves, and not merely because of diluted competition, for volleyball, like many sports, constitutes an international community unto itself. "I honestly wish they were here," said Powers of the boycotters, "if for no other reason than that they are our friends. We've stayed out late with them, had good times with them all. They would've added to the whole experience. I miss them."


Berzins (12) patrolled the net effectively in the rematch with Brazil, making six blocks.



Chris Marlowe signaled the deal was done with his shirt.


The Great Wall of China, anchored by Lang Ping (1), thwarted the U.S. women in the final.