The scene was one of tearful triumph at Havana's Ciudad Deportiva on Friday night. Playing under an enormous portrait of Che Guevara that hangs from the rafters high above the arena floor, and playing before a crowd that cheered the opponents' every point, the U.S. women's volleyball team beat Canada three games to none.
While the winners wept with joy, U.S. coach Terry Liskevych reached into his equipment bag. "I've kept these under wraps for a long time," he said, as he removed a packet of large buttons that read, GO FOR THE GOLD / HODORI THE OLYMPIC TIGER / VOLLEYBALL / SEOUL 1988. He gave one to each member of his team, along with a hug and a kiss on the cheek.
No, the American women had not finished first at the 10th NORCECA (North America, Central America and Caribbean) Zone Championships. The formidable Cuban team had already locked up the gold. But the U.S. volley-bailers had accomplished their mission: By coming in second, they had secured one of the eight berths at the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul. It was a major step for the American squad, which had arrived in Havana with a dismal 3-20 record for 1987.
When Liskevych took over as coach in January 1985, he had to start from scratch. All the '84 Olympic silver medalists save one, substitute setter Kim Ruddins, had left the team to pursue other interests or to play pro ball in Italy or Japan. One of them was Flo Hyman, star of the '84 squad, who died of Marfan syndrome in January 1986 while playing for a Japanese team.
Liskevych sent out an APB across America for female volleyball players and held an open trial in February 1985 in Colorado Springs. From the 70 women who showed up, he chose nine players to start working together at the training center in San Diego. He also picked six alternates. "We asked the nine to move to our team headquarters in San Diego," says Liskevych. "Five were able to move by March 1."
Ten days later, the team set off on its first tour, during which it played the Hyundai Volleyball Club, South Korea's No. 1 club team. Most of Hyundai's players are on the national team. The U.S. was routed 3-0, 3-0, 3-0, 3-1, 3-0, but the Americans finished the year with a 25-20 record. In 1986 they fell to 24-33, but when they played Hyundai that year they won every match.
So if the team was improving, as Liskevych claims, why did it slip to a 3-20 record this year? "Because we've played the best in the world," he says. "To be the best, you've got to play the best. I drew up the toughest schedule, because I know there are only two things the American public will remember about this team: 1) whether it qualified for the Olympics and 2) how it did in Seoul. Nobody's going to talk about its 1987 record."
Nineteen of the 20 losses in 1987 have been against the world's top three teams: This year the Americans are 0-9 against No. 1-ranked Cuba; 0-5 against No. 2 China, the 1984 Olympic champion; and 0-5 against the Soviet Union. "Hopefully, every time we play Cuba, China and the Soviets we play up to their level and we learn," says Ruddins. "That's what it's all about."
In Havana, the U.S. rolled over its first four opponents, not losing a single game to the Virgin Islands, Mexico, Puerto Rico or Nicaragua. Then, on Thursday night, the Americans faced las Cubanas before a screaming, chanting, standing-room-only crowd of approximately 17,000, and as the U.S. team members admitted after the game, they were nervous and pressed too hard. Final score: 15-5, 15-4, 15-2, Cuba.
"They're the best team in the world," said U.S. middle blocker Jayne McHugh, "and tonight we didn't have a good performance. We tried to score too many points early, and a couple of silly errors changed the momentum of the game."
"It's hard to stay patient when you want to win so badly," said outside hitter Caren Kemner on Thursday. "At least tomorrow, when we play Canada, we'll see a team that's a little more human when it comes to volleyball."
The Americans had to beat the Canadians to qualify for Seoul. (The Cubans had assured themselves of a berth in the 1988 Olympics by placing second, behind China, at the '86 World Championships in Prague.) With a 7-0 record against Canada since Liskevych started as coach, the U.S. was confident, but throughout the match the anti-American crowd urged the Canadians on, clapping rhythmically and chanting, "Can-a-da, Can-a-da" over and over. Still, the Americans played well and triumphed in the first two games by the lopsided scores of 15-3, 15-1.
With the score tied 4-4 in Game 3, Canada staged a six-point rally as power hitter Guylaine Dumont slammed a handful of crosscourt and down-the-line winners. However, led by the spiking of outside hitter Liz Masakayan, the U.S. regained its composure to win 15-11. "All day today," said Liskevych, "my assistants and I told the team, 'This one is with your hearts. Play for yourselves. You've worked hard, and you deserve it. Let's be emotional.' "
Afterward, the exultant Americans experienced another emotion, something akin to awe, when Fidel Castro came down onto the court to shake their hands and give them diplomas of participation. Said middle blocker Deitre Collins, shaking her head in wonder, "This sure has been a night to remember."