Michelle Bartsch-Hackley
FIVB

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

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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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40 years ago today: Jimmy Carter lays plan for Olympic boycott

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On Jan. 20, 1980, U.S. President Jimmy Carter said he would not support sending a U.S. team to the Moscow Olympics later that summer if the Soviet Union did not withdraw troops from Afghanistan.

Carter detailed his stance on NBC’s “Meet the Press” airing that Sunday. A transcript:

Bill Monroe: Assuming the Soviets do not pull out of Afghanistan any time soon, do you favor the U.S. participating in the Moscow Olympics, and if not, what are the alternatives?

Carter: No. Neither I nor the American people would support the sending of an American team to Moscow with Soviet invasion troops in Afghanistan. I’ve sent a message today to the United States Olympic Committee spelling out my own position that unless the Soviets withdraw their troops within a month from Afghanistan that the Olympic Games be moved from Moscow to alternate site or multiple sites or postponed or canceled. If the Soviets do not withdraw their troops immediately from Afghanistan — within a month — I would not support the sending of an American team to the Olympics. It’s very important for the world to realize how serious a threat the Soviets’ invasion of Afghanistan is. I do not want to inject politics into the Olympics, and I would personally favor the establishment of a permanent Olympic site for both the Summer and the Winter Games. In my opinion, the most appropriate permanent site for the Summer Games would be Greece. This will be my own position, and I have asked the U.S. Olympic Committee to take this position to the International Olympic Committee, and I would hope that as many nations as possible would support this basic position. One hundred and four nations voted against the Soviet invasion and called for their immediate withdrawal from Afghanistan in the United Nations, and I would hope as many of those as possible would support the position I’ve just outlined to you.

Monroe: Mr. President, if a substantial number of nations does not support the U.S. position, would not that just put the U.S. in an isolated position without doing much damage to the Soviet Union?

Carter: Regardless of what other nations might do, I would not favor the sending of an American Olympic team to Moscow while the Soviet invasion troops are in Afghanistan.

Three days later, Carter said in his State of the Union address, “I have notified the Olympic Committee that with Soviet invading forces in Afghanistan, neither the American people nor I will support sending an Olympic team to Moscow.”

The Soviets did not withdraw troops.

Though Carter did not have the authority to order a boycott, the U.S. Olympic Committee did decide on April 12 not to send a team.

The U.S. was among more than 60 nations that were invited to the Moscow Games and did not participate (for various reasons). Other notable absences included Canada, West Germany, Japan and China.

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With four former champions in the mix, who can claim U.S. Championships pairs’ title?

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There have been four different U.S. pairs’ champions in the past four years. All four of those teams are in the field at this week’s U.S. Championships in Greensboro, North Carolina. With that in mind, who could get the nod to compete at the world championships in March?

The U.S. has two spots to fill, thanks to the efforts of Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc, who finished ninth at last year’s worlds.

Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier had the best fall of any U.S. pair, winning two bronze medals on the Grand Prix Series. Denney and Frazier finished with silver medals at last year’s national championships, too. The team has previous experience at the world championships (2015: 12th; 2017: 20th).

Cain-Gribble and LeDuc won the national title last year after a season that was nearly sidelined by Cain-Gribble’s concussion in December 2018. As the solo U.S. representatives at the world championships, they succeeded in earning back two world berths for 2020.

This season, they won two B-level competitions and finished fourth and fifth at their Grand Prix assignments. LeDuc said last week that despite their win at Golden Spin in December, “there was a little bit of room for improvement, which is exactly what we want from a competition going into nationals.”

“We feel like we’ve improved a lot as far as what we’re able to take on mentally because we know that this is going to be an intense week,” Cain-Gribble said. “We’re prepared for that. We’ve never had to do this before, where we’re coming in and we’re already the reigning champions. We’ve never come in with that title before. We’ve had the opportunity to talk to a lot of people about it and what that feeling is, but overall their main thing was, ‘Be prepared. Prepare yourself beyond what you can even imagine. When you get there, just go on autopilot and do your thing.’”

PyeongChang Olympic team event bronze medalists Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim haven’t been in top form since the Games. Later in 2018, they split from short-lived coach Aljona Savchenko in Germany and moved to California.

They finished an all-time low of seventh at last year’s nationals and were not assigned to any events later in the season. In their off-season, Chris underwent wrist surgery. The couple also added Rafael Arutunian to their coaching team to address their jumping abilities. Their season consisted of a silver medal at a B-level competition, followed by two Grand Prix assignments where they finished fourth and seventh.

“We feel that many people probably have kind of written us off, because we’re an old married couple and we’re kind of labeled ‘can’t get it together,’” Scimeca Knierim said after finishing fourth at Skate Canada this fall. “That’s almost an advantage, because I feel like for so long, we were considered the front-runners. I still believe we are. We’re trying to show we can get it together.”

The last time the Knierims competed at a nationals in Greensboro, in 2015, they won the first of their two titles. That year, they notched their highest placement (seventh) across five total trips to the world championships.

Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea won their national title in 2016 and were also sent on their only trip to the world championships where they finished 13th. In 2017, Kayne underwent knee surgery, but they returned to the national podium in 2018 and won silver. Last year, they finished fourth after a disastrous free skate.

This season, they collected a silver medals and a fourth place finish at two B-level competitions as well as a pair of sixth-place finishes on the Grand Prix.

MORE: 2020 U.S. Figure Skating Championships TV, live stream schedule

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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