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.”
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