"Whoop! Aaaa-ai!" Arie Selinger, coach of the U.S. women's national volleyball team, which will transform itself virtually intact into the Olympic team, has just smashed an overhand ball toward the knees of 6'5" Flo Hyman, who drops to the gym floor like a folding lawn chair. Meeting the ball, her joined forearms give slightly, absorbing a force that would flatten a small animal. The ball, spent and seemingly weightless, drifts toward the ceiling.
"Hup! Ha!" Selinger grunts. He tosses another ball just out of Hyman's reach, and her extended body stretches sideways in midair, telescoping out a few more inches. She misses the ball and collides with the floor. "Hup! Aaa-ah!" Scrambling, she veers over, twists and dives for another one, reaching, just barely touching it with the knuckles of her clenched right fist. The ball angles off toward the back wall like the ejected shell of a fired bullet. Selinger pushes the next shot gently out of his upturned palm as if his hand were exhaling a huge soap bubble. Hyman lunges and pops it up. Somersaulting forward, she's on her feet for another ball, ignoring the one that hits her smack on the shoulder.
Hyman, 29, a phenomenal athlete who seemingly strikes the ball with enough ferocity to rearrange the grain in a wood floor, and Selinger, 47, a former Israeli commando, are old friends. They've been at this for nine years, working on her defensive skills, dispelling her fear of falling from her own great height, venturing across new thresholds of pain. They and the 12 other women on the team have spliced their wills to pursue two common goals: promoting their sport and winning an Olympic medal, preferably a gold one.
On the far side of the net, other exceedingly fit, long-limbed women with taped fingers and bruised thighs practice a different drill. Their sneakers chirp on the floor like bantering parakeets; in a higher octave are the shrill squeaks of skin screeching across the floor as player after player dives headlong for just-out-of-reach balls and then slides 10 feet into a forward somersault. "Go, Kim!" says a teammate. "You can do it, Jeanne." "Atta way, Linda," chimes in another hoarse voice. "Nice, Julie. Nice." Cheers of encouragement, pained cries and exclamations from physical exertion swell in the air as white balls rise and fall like exploded corn in a popping machine.
Selinger fires another ball at Hyman. His arm is so tired he can't feel it. "What do you mean does it hurt? It's dead," he'll say later. After 20 balls, Hyman is panting, her shoulders rolled forward, her long arms dangling, her third jersey of the practice soaked through with sweat. Her eyes show no sign of defeat, but when the next ball comes, her head just rolls back over her shoulder as she watches it land on the back line.
"Again, again, again," says Selinger, tossing up yet another one.
"Well, give it to me," says Hyman, swaying back and forth before she heaves her tired body through three seconds of flying time out of what is just another of her nine-to-five workdays.
The women's national volleyball team is the first one in an Olympic sport in the U.S. to live and train together year-round. Since 1978 the players have studied and practiced volleyball with a dedication that would have made them doctors by now if they'd been in med school. It's an intense, driven group with a gritty instinct for survival infused by its intense, driven coach, a man whose gaze is so penetrating that a customs and immigration official at the Moscow airport was forced to look away from him during a routine stare-down. "He couldn't take it; first he broke, then he smiled," says Selinger, who spent three years of his early childhood in a concentration camp, daily subjected to far worse visions than that of a menacing Soviet official.
Many of the women, all in their 20s, have been playing volleyball for 10 years; between them they have done enough spiking to lay a railroad track across the U.S. None is married, none has finished college, and some will have lost their scholarships by the time they return to school. All have traded normal lives to be the best in the world at what they most love to do: play volleyball. Not beach volleyball—power volleyball, the exhilarating fast-paced game that the Soviets and the Japanese play.
That an amateur team has worked so hard so long without hope of financial compensation is baffling to a public accustomed to reading about six-figure salaries for athletes. The team's '83-84 training program—eight hours a day, six days a week, with a couple of weeks off for vacation around Christmas—is more rigorous than any pro team's. Such dedication has made it a provocative presence in American sports. Some observers find it unpalatable that women train so hard, and others find the rigors of the program ill-suited to the U.S. ethos.