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The Waiting Is Over
Joan Ackermann-Blount
July 23, 1984
After six years of rugged training, the U.S. women's volleyball team is still intact—and looking golden
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July 23, 1984

The Waiting Is Over

After six years of rugged training, the U.S. women's volleyball team is still intact—and looking golden

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His striking face, with high cheekbones and sharply chiseled features often cast in a stoic expression, can be unwittingly intimidating. "Ah, his face," says Green. "At first some people think it's mean. It's amazing how people you think would never be afraid of anyone can be afraid of Arie." His good looks once prompted a Twentieth Century Fox executive to send him an invitation for a screen test when he saw a picture of him in a paratrooper's uniform on the cover of an Israeli military magazine.

Selinger, who has his share of critics, feels that resentment toward him springs somewhat from the fact that he's foreign-born, although he became a U.S. citizen in 1979. "I don't think there's any doubt of that," says Braden, "but Arie is more of an American than anybody. Arie is everything this country stands for."

When Selinger was a child in Bergen-Belsen, where for three years he daily watched prisoners being beaten, his mother tried to boost his spirits by telling him of the U.S. "My mother never stopped talking about going to America," he says. "She would tell me, 'Your dad is in Israel. When we meet him, we will all go to America together, to the new land.' Always I heard my mother talking, 'America, America, America.' "

Selinger was born into a wealthy, musical family in Crakow, Poland in 1937. As a child he played the mandolin. Today, making gestures worthy of an orchestra conductor, he speaks of volleyball in musical terms: "Rhythm is the most important characteristic of the game. The inner pace has to flow. The cue is the ball, and the team has to flow with its speed." His father, Chaim, was a construction engineer who remodeled a large theater as a home for the family before the Germans came and took it over. In 1942, the Selingers were seized and separated; Arie, age 5, and his mother, Lina, were sent to Bergen-Belsen.

When Selinger was eight, he and his mother were put on a death train. "We didn't know where we were going," he says in his low, mesmerizing voice. "All of a sudden the train stopped and the engine was sent back. In the evening we could see the lightning from gunfire and hear the cannons. We knew we were very near the front.

"Early in the morning we woke up before the others. My mother used to have a sixth sense about what was going to happen, and she snuck me down from the train. The track was in a valley and at the bottom was a marsh. We went down and sat in the water, hiding, our heads sticking up, plants and stuff like that around us. At sunrise, we saw the Germans line everybody up, getting ready to execute them. Suddenly, up on the slope behind the train, we noticed all the trees were falling down. It was the American troops coming in tanks. Immediately the Germans surrendered."

Though his mother stayed behind to search for relatives, Selinger was sent to Israel, under arrangements made by the American Red Cross. Upon arriving there he was told by an aunt that his father had died in Auschwitz. Selinger lived in Ein Hamifratz kibbutz, where he excelled in track and field and was introduced to volleyball. For many years he played on the national squad and in 1965 was named coach of the Israeli women's team. In '69 he came to the U.S. with his wife, Aia, and daughter, Ayelet, to study at the University of Chicago. He went on to earn his master's degree and doctorate at Champaign, doing his dissertation on body composition.

A volleyball team has its own body composition. Selinger's fascination with seeing how things work extends into designing a team whose six bodies whir through space like the parts of a well-oiled machine. He constantly draws diagrams of game plays on scraps of paper.

"This game is so complex," he says, "it never fails to intrigue me; it's a game of geometry. I tell you I learn something new every day. In men's volleyball it's just boom, boom, boom. Power. The women have to win by skill and by outsmarting their opponent; it requires more finesse, more sophistication."

"There's so much grace in volleyball," says Aia, the team's technical adviser, who was a gymnast on the Israeli national team from 1959 to 1962. "The game is very artistic, requiring everything. You have to be quick; you fly up and come down and roll like a cat."

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