Michelle Bartsch-Hackley goes from coaching to U.S. volleyball MVP

Michelle Bartsch-Hackley
FIVB
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I tell Michelle Bartsch-Hackley as I rise at the end of our sitdown interview that I’m heading upstairs to ask her coach, Karch Kiraly, about her.

“He’s going to say, this girl is terrible. I almost cut her,” Bartsch-Hackley says without a laugh but, mostly, in jest. 

Actually, Bartsch-Hackley was cut from the Olympic team. That’s just one hurdle the 6-foot-4 native of the horseradish capital of the world cleared to become an indispensable part of the U.S. volleyball team.

Bartsch-Hackley was named MVP of the premier summer tournament, the FIVB Nations League, and has the most powerful right arm on the 14-player roster for the quadrennial world championship that starts Saturday in Japan. The U.S. is defending champion and no doubt eager to better its bronze-medal effort from the Rio Games.

Bartsch-Hackley, an outside hitter nicknamed Slugger, is working on an indoor volleyball career as unique as her 14-letter last name and pulled-back pink hair.

Bartsch-Hackley all but gave up in the first few months post-college, moved to California and considered beach volleyball, coached for a men’s college program, tried out for and made the only club team that gave her a chance and played so well that the legendary Kiraly called and asked her to a two-week trial with the national team in 2015.

Bartsch-Hackley was 25. That’s old to start a national-team career, much less try out for the first time. Everybody on the Rio Olympic team began playing international tournaments for the national team at 24 or younger.

“Most players, once they’re playing beyond college, if they’re hungry to get in here, they might write me a letter and be a little vulnerable and expose themselves and say something like, would there be any room in the gym for me?” said Kiraly, the only player to win Olympic beach and indoor gold medals and the U.S. women’s head coach since 2012. “Bartschy would say, I didn’t want to be that kind of player.”

Bartsch-Hackley had the pedigree of a youth and junior national team player. But she didn’t know what she wanted out of volleyball in 2012, shortly after ending an All-American ride at the University of Illinois that culminated with the first NCAA title game appearance in program history (a loss to UCLA).

She began playing pro in Puerto Rico but lost more in three months than she did in four years in Champaign.

“There were a lot of things that were like, this is not what I expected,” Bartsch-Hackley said. Pressed, she mentioned “different circumstances” within the team, like not getting paid on time. “Getting a paycheck is cool, but if I’m not loving it, I don’t want to do it.”

She didn’t love it. Bartsch-Hackley, then engaged to Corbin Hackley, returned to Illinois later that year. She completed her undergraduate degree in sport management while aiding the Illini coaching staff.

Who knows what would have happened if not for David Kniffin, an assistant for the NCAA runner-up team who in 2012 became the men’s head coach at UC Irvine (succeeding John Speraw, now the U.S. men’s national team head coach).

Kniffin told Bartsch-Hackley that she could move to California, play some beach volleyball and volunteer coach with the Anteaters for the 2013 season. She tried it.

“They always valued my opinion,” Bartsch-Hackley said of the men’s team that repeated as NCAA champion that season. “They would give me s—, and I would give them s— back. I never felt outnumbered.”

But as she pored and pored over match video in an office that season, one thought dominated. I just want to go play. And not on the beach.

Bartsch-Hackley said her agent told her one team in the world was interested, but only for a tryout.

So she towed a month’s worth of luggage to Vilsbiburg, a Bavarian farming town an hour outside of Munich. Bartsch-Hackley said the year off from playing made her a worse player going into the tryout than when she had finished at Illinois.

“I started from zero,” she said.

It took a month and a half, but she got a contract. After one season, she transferred to Bundesliga champion Dresden, helped that club win another German title in 2015 and played in the European Champions League.

Dresden teammate Molly Kreklow, a U.S. national team member, asked Bartsch-Hackley if she could mention her name to Kiraly. They Skyped, and Bartsch-Hackley accepted a two-week trial offer with the national team.

We almost had no choice but to invite her here because her play did the talking,” said Kiraly, who had thought Bartsch-Hackley had retired until he saw her pop up in Germany.

Bartsch-Hackley’s first memories with Team USA are the nerves. Kiraly texts to schedule one-on-one meetings. Every time, Bartsch-Hackley dreaded she’d be told to pack her bags and return to Germany.

“I would go up there, palms sweating,” she recalled. “[Kiraly would say], ‘I just wanted to tell you that you’re working hard, and we appreciate your hard work.’ I’m like, can you just text me and tell me you’re not cutting me when you want to talk?”

As much as Bartsch-Hackley impressed the coaches, she was stuck behind a murderer’s row of outside hitters.

Come Rio Olympic selection, it was USA Volleyball Player of the Year Jordan Larson, 2014 World Championship MVP Kim Hill and Italian League MVP Kelsey Robinson. Kiraly delivered the bad news.

“If we took four outside hitters to Rio instead of three, she would have been [on the team],” he said. 

It didn’t stop her.

While Larson, Hill and Robinson took 2017 off (as many Olympians do the post-Games year), Bartsch-Hackley earned a most improved player award. This year, coaches moved Robinson to libero, opening a spot for Bartsch-Hackley with the returns of Larson and Hill.

At Nations League, Bartsch-Hackley ranked second in the final round in scoring behind Rio Olympic MVP Zhu Ting of China. In the final against Turkey, she started at outside hitter with Larson, was benched, and then came back in at the opposite position and helped the U.S. win in five sets.

“She brought us what we needed, brought us some more efficient blocking and a big arm, a slugger arm,” Kiraly said. “That helped turned the match around for us.”

Bartsch-Hackley reflected on a concession-area stool at the American Sports Centers in Anaheim this summer. Then she thought about those meetings with Kiraly in 2015, when she was sure she would be cut.

“I’m not sure if I’m confident still,” she said about her place on the team. “I don’t think anyone is ever super comfortable, but I think that’s good.”

MORE: New beach team nets biggest U.S. breakout in a decade

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Alpine skiing TV, live stream schedule for 2022-23 World Cup season

Mikaela Shiffrin, Marco Odermatt
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NBC Sports and Peacock combine to air live coverage of the 2022-23 Alpine skiing season, including races on the World Cup.

Coverage began with the traditional season-opening stop in Soelden, Austria.

The first of four stops in the U.S. — the most in 26 years — was Thanksgiving weekend with a women’s giant slalom and slalom in Killington, Vermont. The men’s tour visited Beaver Creek, Colorado the following week, with stops in Palisades Tahoe, California, and Aspen, Colorado after February’s worlds in Courchevel and Meribel, France.

NBC Sports platforms air all four U.S. stops in the Alpine World Cup season, plus four more World Cups in other ski and snowboard disciplines. All Alpine World Cups in Austria stream live on Peacock.

Mikaela Shiffrin, who last year won her fourth World Cup overall title, is the headliner. Shiffrin, who began the season with 74 career World Cup race victories, is now up to 84, passing Lindsey Vonn for the female record and now two behind Ingemar Stenmark‘s overall record.

On the men’s side, 25-year-old Swiss Marco Odermatt returns after becoming the youngest man to win the overall, the biggest annual prize in ski racing, since Marcel Hirscher won the second of his record eight in a row in 2013.

2022-23 Alpine Skiing World Cup Broadcast Schedule
Schedule will be added to as the season progresses. All NBC Sports TV coverage also streams live on NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app.

Date Coverage Network/Platform Time (ET)
Sat., Oct. 22 Women’s GS (Run 1) – Soelden (PPD) Peacock 4 a.m.
Women’s GS (Run 2) – Soelden (PPD) Peacock 7:05 a.m.
Sun., Oct. 23 Men’s GS (Run 1) — Soelden Peacock 4 a.m.
Men’s GS (Run 2) – Soelden Peacock 7 a.m.
Sat., Nov. 12 Women’s Parallel (Qualifying) — Lech (PPD) Peacock 6 a.m.
Women’s Parallel (Finals) — Lech (PPD) Peacock 12 p.m.
Sun., Nov. 13 Men’s Parallel (Qualifying) — Lech (PPD) Peacock 4 a.m.
Men’s Parallel (Finals) — Lech (PPD) Peacock 10 a.m.
Sat., Nov. 19 Women’s SL (Run 1) — Levi Skiandsnowboard.live 4 a.m.
Women’s SL (Run 2) — Levi Skiandsnowboard.live 7 a.m.
Sun., Nov. 20 Women’s SL (Run 1) — Levi Skiandsnowboard.live 4:15 a.m.
Women’s SL (Run 2) — Levi Skiandsnowboard.live 7:15 a.m.
Fri., Nov. 25 Men’s DH — Lake Louise (PPD) Skiandsnowboard.live 2:30 p.m.
Sat., Nov. 26 Women’s GS (Run 2) — Killington NBC, Peacock 12:30 p.m.
Men’s DH — Lake Louise Skiandsnowboard.live 2:30 p.m.
Sun., Nov. 27 Women’s SL (Run 2) — Killington NBC, Peacock 12:30 p.m.
Men’s SG — Lake Louise Skiandsnowboard.live 2:15 p.m.
Fri., Dec. 2 Women’s DH — Lake Louise Skiandsnowboard.live 2 p.m.
Sat., Dec. 3 Women’s DH — Lake Louise Skiandsnowboard.live 2:30 p.m.
Men’s DH — Beaver Creek NBC, Peacock 5 p.m.*
Sun., Dec. 4 Women’s SG — Lake Louise Skiandsnowboard.live 1 p.m.
Men’s SG — Beaver Creek NBC, Peacock 5 p.m.*
Sat., Dec. 10 Men’s GS (Run 1) – Val d’Isere Skiandsnowboard.live 3:30 a.m.
Women’s GS (Run 1) – Sestriere Skiandsnowboard.live 4:30 a.m.
Men’s GS (Run 2) — Val d’Isere Skiandsnowboard.live 6:30 a.m.
Women’s GS (Run 2) – Sestriere Skiandsnowboard.live 7:30 a.m.
Sun., Dec. 11 Men’s SL (Run 1) – Val d’Isere Skiandsnowboard.live 3:30 a.m.
Women’s SL (Run 1) – Sestriere Skiandsnowboard.live 4:30 a.m.
Men’s SL (Run 2) — Val d’Isere Skiandsnowboard.live 6:30 a.m.
Women’s SL (Run 2) – Sestiere Skiandsnowboard.live 7:30 a.m.
Thu., Dec. 15 Men’s DH — Val Gardena Skiandsnowboard.live 6 a.m.
Fri., Dec. 16 Women’s DH — St. Moritz Skiandsnowboard.live 4:30 a.m.
Men’s SG — Val Gardena (PPD) Skiandsnowboard.live 5:45 a.m.
Sat., Dec. 17 Women’s DH — St. Moritz Skiandsnowboard.live 4:30 a.m.
Men’s DH — Val Gardena Skiandsnowboard.live 5:45 a.m.
Sun., Dec. 18 Men’s GS (Run 1) — Alta Badia Skiandsnowboard.live 4 a.m.
Women’s SG — St. Moritz Skiandsnowboard.live 5:30 a.m.
Men’s GS (Run 2) — Alta Badia Skiandsnowboard.live 7:30 a.m.
Mon., Dec. 19 Men’s GS (Run 1) — Alta Badia Skiandsnowboard.live 4 a.m.
Men’s GS (Run 2) — Alta Badia Skiandsnowboard.live 7:30 a.m.
Thu., Dec. 22 Men’s SL (Run 1) – Madonna Skiandsnowboard.live 11:45 a.m.
Men’s SL (Run 2) — Madonna Skiandsnowboard.live 2:45 p.m.
Tue., Dec. 27 Women’s GS (Run 1) – Semmering Peacock 4 a.m.
Women’s GS (Run 2) – Semmering Peacock 7:05 a.m.
Wed., Dec. 28 Women’s GS (Run 1) — Semmering Peacock 4 a.m.
Men’s DH — Bormio Skiandsnowboard.live 5:30 a.m.
Women’s GS (Run 2) – Semmering Peacock 7:05 a.m.
Thu., Dec. 29 Men’s SG — Bormio Skiandsnowboard.live 5:30 a.m.
Women’s SL (Run 1) – Semmering Peacock 9 a.m.
Women’s SL (Run 2) – Semmering Peacock 12:30 p.m.
Wed., Jan. 4 Women’s SL (Run 1) — Zagreb Skiandsnowboard.live 6:30 a.m.
Men’s SL (Run 1) — Garmisch Skiandsnowboard.live 9:40 a.m.
Women’s SL (Run 2) — Zagreb Skiandsnowboard.live 10:30 a.m.
Men’s SL (Run 2) — Garmisch Skiandsnowboard.live 12:45 p.m.
Thu., Jan. 5 Women’s SL (Run 1) — Zagreb (PPD) Skiandsnowboard.live 9 a.m.
Women’s SL (Run 2) — Zagreb (PPD) Skiandsnowboard.live 12 p.m.
Sat., Jan. 7 Women’s GS (Run 1) — Kranjska Gora Skiandsnowboard.live 3:30 a.m.
Men’s GS (Run 1) — Adelboden Skiandsnowboard.live 4:30 a.m.
Women’s GS (Run 2) — Kranjska Gora Skiandsnowboard.live 6:30 a.m.
Men’s GS (Run 2) — Adelboden Skiandsnowboard.live 7:30 a.m.
Sun., Jan. 8 Women’s GS (Run 1) — Kranjska Gora Skiandsnowboard.live 3:30 a.m.
Men’s SL (Run 1) — Adelboden Skiandsnowboard.live 4:30 a.m.
Women’s GS (Run 2) — Kranjska Gora Skiandsnowboard.live 6:30 a.m.
Men’s SL (Run 2) — Adelboden Skiandsnowboard.live 7:30 a.m.
Tue., Jan. 10 Women’s SL (Run 1) — Flachau Peacock 12 p.m.
Women’s SL (Run 2) — Flachau Peacock 2:45 p.m.
Fri., Jan. 13 Men’s SG — Wengen Skiandsnowboard.live 6 a.m.
Sat., Jan. 14 Women’s SG — St. Anton Peacock 5 a.m.
Men’s DH — Wengen Skiandsnowboard.live 6:30 a.m.
Sun., Jan. 15 Men’s SL (Run 1) — Wengen Skiandsnowboard.live 4:15 a.m.
Women’s SG — St. Anton Peacock 5:30 a.m.
Men’s SL (Run 2) — Wengen Skiandsnowboard.live 7:15 a.m.
Fri., Jan. 20 Women’s DH — Cortina d’Ampezzo Skiandsnowboard.live 4:15 a.m.
Men’s DH — Kitzbühel Peacock 5:30 a.m.
Sat., Jan. 21 Women’s DH — Cortina d’Ampezzo Skiandsnowboard.live 4 a.m.
Men’s DH — Kitzbühel Peacock 5:30 a.m.
Men’s DH — Kitzbühel NBC 5 p.m.*
Sun., Jan. 22 Men’s SL (Run 1) — Kitzbühel Peacock 4:30 a.m.
Women’s SG — Cortina d’Ampezzo Skiandsnowboard.live 5:30 a.m.
Men’s SL (Run 2) — Kitzbühel Peacock 7:30 a.m.
Tue., Jan. 24 Women’s GS (Run 1) — Kronplatz Skiandsnowboard.live 4:30 a.m.
Women’s GS (Run 2) — Kronplatz Skiandsnowboard.live 7:30 a.m.
Men’s SL (Run 1) — Schladming Peacock 11:45 a.m.
Men’s SL (Run 2) — Schladming Peacock 2:45 p.m.
Wed., Jan. 25 Women’s GS (Run 1) — Kronplatz Skiandsnowboard.live 4:30 a.m
Women’s GS (Run 2) — Kronplatz Skiandsnowboard.live 7:30 a.m.
Men’s GS (Run 1) — Schladming Peacock 11:45 a.m.
Men’s GS (Run 2) — Schladming Peacock 2:45 p.m.
Sat., Jan. 28 Women’s SL (Run 1) — Spindleruv Mlyn Skiandsnowboard.live 3:30 a.m
Men’s SG — Cortina d’Ampezzo Skiandsnowboard.live 5:10 a.m.
Women’s SL (Run 2) — Spindleruv Mlyn Skiandsnowboard.live 6:30 a.m
Sun., Jan. 29 Women’s SL (Run 1) — Spindleruv Mlyn Skiandsnowboard.live 3:15 a.m.
Men’s SG — Cortina d’Ampezzo Skiandsnowboard.live 4:15 a.m.
Women’s SL (Run 2) — Spindleruv Mlyn Skiandsnowboard.live 6:15 a.m.
Sat., Feb. 4 Men’s SL (Run 1) — Chamonix Skiandsnowboard.live 3:30 a.m.
Men’s SL (Run 2) — Chamonix Skiandsnowboard.live 6:30 a.m.

*Delayed broadcast.

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Aryna Sabalenka wins Australian Open for first Grand Slam singles title

Aryna Sabalenka Australian Open 2023
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MELBOURNE, Australia — The serves were big. So big. Other shots, too. The points were over quickly. So quickly: Seven of the first 13 were aces.

And so it was immediately apparent in the Australian Open women’s final between Aryna Sabalenka and Elena Rybakina that the one who could manage to keep her serve in line, get a read on returns and remain steady at the tightest moments would emerge victorious.

That turned out to be Sabalenka, a 24-year-old from Belarus, who won her first Grand Slam title by coming back to beat Wimbledon champion Rybakina 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 at Melbourne Park on Saturday night, using 17 aces among her 51 total winners to overcome seven double-faults.

It was telling that Sabalenka’s remarks during the post-match ceremony were directed at her coach, Anton Dubrov, and her fitness trainer, Jason Stacy — she referred to them as “the craziest team on tour, I would say.”

“We’ve been through a lot of, I would say, downs last year,” said Sabalenka, who was appearing in her first major final. “We worked so hard and you guys deserve this trophy. It’s more about you than it’s about me.”

Now 11-0 in 2023 with two titles already, she is a powerful player whose most glowing strength was also her most glaring shortfall: her serve. Long capable of hammering aces, she also had a well-known problem with double-faulting, leading the tour in that category last year with nearly 400, including more than 20 apiece in some matches.

After much prodding from her group, she finally agreed to undergo an overhaul of her serving mechanics last August. That, along with a commitment to trying to stay calm in the most high-pressure moments, is really paying off now.

The only set she has dropped all season was the opener on Saturday against Rybakina, who eliminated No. 1 Iga Swiatek in the fourth round.

But Sabalenka turned things around with an aggressive style and, importantly, by breaking Rybakina three times, the last coming for a 4-3 lead in the third set that was never relinquished.

Still, Sabalenka needed to work for the championship while serving in what would be the last game, double-faulting on her initial match point and requiring three more to close things out.

When Rybakina sent a forehand long to cap the final after nearly 2 1/2 hours, Sabalenka dropped to her back on the court and stayed down for a bit, covering her face as her eyes welled with tears.

Sabalenka was 0-3 in Grand Slam semifinals until eliminating Magda Linette in Melbourne. Now Sabalenka has done one better and will rise to No. 2 in the rankings.

As seagulls were squawking loudly while flying overhead at Rod Laver Arena, Rybakina and Sabalenka traded booming serves. Rybakina’s fastest arrived at 121 mph (195 kph), Sabalenka’s at 119 mph (192 kph). They traded zooming groundstrokes from the baseline, often untouchable, resulting in winner after winner.

“Hopefully,” Rybakina said afterward, “we’re going to have many more battles.”

The key statistic, ultimately, was this: Sabalenka accumulated 13 break points, Rybakina seven. Sabalenka’s trio of conversions was enough, and the constant pressure she managed to apply during Rybakina’s service games had to take a toll.

Sabalenka had been broken just six times in 55 service games through the course of these two weeks, an average of once per match. It took Rybakina fewer than 10 minutes of action and all of two receiving games to get the measure of things and lead 2-1, helped by getting back one serve that arrived at 117 mph (189 kph).

A few games later, Sabalenka returned the favor, also putting her racket on one of Rybakina’s offerings at that same speed. Then, when Sabalenka grooved a down-the-line backhand passing winner to grab her first break and pull even at 4-all, she looked at Dubrov and Stacy in the stands, raised a fist and shouted.

In the next game, though, Sabalenka gave that right back, double-faulting twice — including on break point — to give Rybakina a 5-4 edge. This time, Sabalenka again turned toward her entourage, but with a sigh and an eye roll and arms extended, as if to say, “Can you believe it?”

Soon after, Rybakina held at love to own that set.

Sabalenka changed the momentum right from the get-go in the second set. Aggressively attacking, she broke to go up 3-1, held for 4-1 and eventually served it out, fittingly, with an ace — on a second serve, no less.

Sabalenka acknowledged ahead of time that she expected to be nervous. Which makes perfect sense: This was the most important match of her career to date.

And if those jitters were evident ever-so-briefly early — she double-faulted on the evening’s very first point — and appeared to be resurfacing as the end neared, Sabalenka controlled them well enough to finish the job.

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