Let's see if we've got this straight. The current coach of the U.S. women's volleyball team thinks the former coach is "paranoid" and "a schizo." The former coach thinks the incumbent is "a liar and a politician," which is probably redundant. The star of the team is a 6'1" power hitter whose best weapon is either a spike shot or a pair of spiked heels, depending on where you happen to be standing. She has been playing for the American side either for three years or for three months, depending on which coach you're speaking to. The coaches are not speaking to each other at all.
The player is a long-stemmed American beauty of German extraction named Paula Weishoff, who was a starter for the silver medal-winning U.S. Olympic team in 1984. Weishoff was at the world volleyball championships in Czechoslovakia last week as part of a new American squad that is still struggling to emerge from the '84 team's shadow. Also on hand in Prague, and lurking mysteriously in the gothic shadows of the Czech capital, was the controversial coach of the '84 team, Arie Selinger, a chain-smoking Polish-Israeli-American. And rounding out the field was the U.S. team's present coach, Taras (Terry) Liskevych, a Ukrainian-American who prepared for his current assignment by playing volleyball for the Ukrainian Boy Scouts of Chicago. These are not to be confused with the Boy Scouts of America. "There's a difference," points out Liskevych. "The Ukrainian Boy Scouts is almost like commando training."
When Weishoff made the decision to return to the U.S. team in June after playing for two years in Italy, she became the only link between the '84 team and the present one, and as things have worked out, she has been a bridge over some fairly troubled waters. "Everybody asks me to compare Terry to Arie, but you can't," Weishoff says. "I feel really in the middle a lot, and I'm tired of it. From one side I hear how this team isn't any good, and from these girls I hear about how in '84 we were in a concentration camp and that we never had any fun. Well, we did have fun, it was just not all the time."
Selinger was equal parts martinet and Svengali to the American women, a charismatic figure who could keep his teams in the gym eight hours a day, six days a week and make them like it. "That team was like a cult," says one of Selinger's critics. "They'd tell you how badly Arie was abusing them in one breath, then defend him in the next." Former University of Kentucky coach Mary Jo Peppier, an Olympian herself on the '64 team, once described Selinger's methods as "un-American" after two of her players quit the national team. "One came back suffering from malnutrition," Peppier reported, "and the other was hysterical."
September 21, 1986
Most of the players on the '84 Olympic team had been together for seven years by the time they won the silver in Los Angeles, and when the games were over and Selinger was not asked to return as coach, every one of them retired. "It is uncommon to have so many leave at one time," says Doug Beal, the national team director. "But the real mistake wasn't that they all retired at once, it was that that possibility hadn't been anticipated." Selinger had been operating so far outside of anyone else's control that the U.S. didn't even have a junior team waiting in the wings.
When Liskevych took over in 1985, he put together a team that played a series of four matches against a top Japanese squad and won only one game. Over the past year he has tried 37 different players, usually with the same dispiriting results. "It's been a revolving door," he says. Liskevych didn't arrive at the combination that played in Czechoslovakia until Weishoff returned to the team in late June. Selinger, whose wife, Aia, of all people, was responsible for talking Weishoff into playing for the U.S. again, insists that nine of the 12 players from the '84 team have contacted Liskevych about coming back and eight were rebuffed. "He whines about having to start a team from scratch," Selinger says, "but if they played for me, he doesn't want them."
While the reasons the women aren't playing are complicated, it is possible that Liskevych has been too successful in his exertions to distance his team from Selinger's, especially when more tangible successes have been so hard to come by. Team captain Karolyn Kirby has talked of feeling cut off from the '84 team. "And it's a shame," she says, "because a lot of them were our idols. If we could to talk to them, maybe we could learn something. There was a mystique about that team. People were afraid of them because they were training all the time. Nobody knew what they were doing in that gym."
Selinger is now the coach of the national men's team in Holland and has lately begun writing letters to what Liskevych describes as "the volleyball media," whatever that may be, attacking Liskevych and the current team. Selinger has assigned himself the rather provocative title of "coach in exile" in these love notes. "It bothers the hell out of Terry," says Beal, "and he feels compelled to respond, though I wish he wouldn't. I think he's very sensitive to any comparison between his team and the past one."
The grudge Liskevych bears toward Selinger, a Jewish refugee who narrowly escaped death during World War II, obviously goes well beyond different coaching philosophies. Liskevych, himself the child of Ukrainian refugees who fled the Soviets following the war, resents fawning stories that have been written about Selinger. As for the coaching, there is no escaping the fact that the current team is light years away from Selinger's in every respect, as the American women proved convincingly last week in Prague. They dropped three straight matches—to China, East Germany and the Soviet Union—in the semifinal round on the way to a 10th-place finish. The U.S. team has an abundance of raw talent at every position except for the most important one—setter—where it is woefully weak, with no help in sight. Liskevych has installed an innovative tactical system of play, and yet, ironically, what the Americans appear to need most before they can challenge the top teams in the world is a lot of long, grueling hours in the gym to improve their technique.
Weishoff was the lone American bright spot in Prague, playing brilliantly from the outside hitter position in a wrenching 3-2 loss to East Germany on Monday. Still, after the blowouts to China and the U.S.S.R., Liskevych singled her out for blame, faulting her for what he said was a lack of aggressiveness. The criticism seemed to sting Weishoff, a player the U.S. team could ill afford to lose, but one who obviously was beginning to question whether her presence was even welcome. "She and Terry obviously aren't seeing eye to eye on a lot of things," said Beal last week. "I'm not very optimistic she will ever be able to produce in this system the way she did in the last one. This would probably be a better team if Terry and Paula Weishoff never had to talk to each other."