Michelle Bartsch-Hackley
FIVB

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

Leave a comment

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

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

Alex ‘Chumpy’ Pullin, Olympian, world champion snowboarder, drowns in spearfishing accident

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Alex “Chumpy” Pullin, an Olympian and world champion snowboarder, drowned while spearfishing on Australia’s Gold Coast on Wednesday.

A police spokesperson said a 32-year-old man, later identified as Pullin, was unresponsive when taken from the water and died despite receiving CPR from lifeguards and emergency treatment from paramedics.

The accident happened at Palm Beach around 10:40 a.m. local time. Pullin had been diving on an artificial reef when he was found by a snorkeler.

“Another diver was out there and located him on the sea floor and raised the attention of nearby surfers who sought lifeguards to bring him in,” police said. “He didn’t have an oxygen mask. We understand he was free diving and spearfishing out on the reef.”

Pullin competed in Olympic snowboard cross in 2010, 2014 and 2018 with a best finish of sixth. He won back-to-back world titles in 2011 and 2013. He carried Australia’s flag at the Sochi Olympic Opening Ceremony in 2014.

“We are all in shock today as one of the most beloved members of our close snow sport community, Chumpy, has sadly lost his life in what appears to be a tragic accident,” Snow Australia CEO Michael Kennedy said in a statement. “He was a mentor to so many of our younger snowboarders, giving up his time to coach and provide advice to our future Olympians. His loss will be felt right across our community.

“We know it won’t just be here in Australia that Chumpy’s legacy will be remembered, but throughout the international snowboarding community. It wasn’t just his ability to deliver results that will be missed, but his leadership and the path that he laid for so many.”

His parents owned a ski and snowboard shop in the Australian Alps, where Pullin began riding at age 8. Older friends gave him the nickname “Chumpy,” and it stuck.

Pullin, who spent time as a frontman for the surf-reggae band love Charli, often brought a guitar with him while traveling for competitions.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Shaunae Miller-Uibo leans toward Olympic decision, schedule unchanged

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Shaunae Miller-Uibo said she likely will not defend her Olympic 400m title in Tokyo in favor of racing the 200m because the turnaround between the two events is too tight, according to a report.

“I would have to choose one event, and we’re leaning more toward the 200m seeing that we already have the 400m title,” Miller-Uibo said, according to the Nassau Guardian in her native Bahamas. Miller-Uibo’s agent later confirmed the sentiment.

Last summer, Miller-Uibo said she requested that World Athletics modify the Olympic track and field schedule to better accommodate a 200m-400m double. A World Athletics spokesperson confirmed Tuesday that it reviewed the request, could not change the schedule and that decision was final.

Olympic schedules have been changed in the past for 200m-400m double attempts, including for Michael Johnson and Allyson Felix. But the debut of the mixed-gender 4x400m relay to the Olympic program in Tokyo “added to the complexities of developing the timetable,” World Athletics said in a statement it said it first released last September.

The revised Olympic schedule for 2021 has not been announced, but a change in the lineup of track and field events would be a surprise, especially given World Athletics’ statement on Miller-Uibo’s request.

“While it may look simple to move one race to a time which would allow increased rest time between the 200m and 400m, there is a knock on effect with other events which are then impacted,” according to World Athletics. “Following the review of various scenarios, we concluded that the current timetable provides the best opportunity for a 200m/400m doubling opportunity without adversely affecting other events. The current timetable does allow the possibility to compete in both the 200m and 400m although we do acknowledge this requires racing twice in the same day on one occasion. Having taken that into consideration, we have tried to allow the maximum time in between the events which results in almost 12 hours on that particular day.”

The original 2020 Olympic schedule had the 400m first round and the 200m final on the same day (former in the morning, latter at night), with the 400m semifinals the following day.

“It’s still a little bit tricky,” Miller-Uibo said last August. “We’re just asking them to clear it up a little bit more for us, where we can focus on three [rounds in the 200m] and then focus on the other three [rounds in the 400m]. I think it’s always been so simple for the 100m/200m runners. The 200m/400m being a more complex double, I think we’re asking for a day, if they can at least do that for us.”

Miller-Uibo went undefeated at 200m and 400m for two years before taking silver at the 2019 World Championships in the 400m behind Bahrain’s Salwa Eid Naser. Naser was provisionally suspended last month for missing three drug tests in a 12-month span. Naser said the missed tests all came before worlds. It hasn’t been announced whether she could be stripped of the world title.

Miller-Uibo chose to race the 400m over the 200m at worlds, where the schedule made a double more difficult than the Olympic schedule. She remains the fastest woman in the world in this Olympic cycle in the 200m.

The world’s three fastest 400m runners in this Olympic cycle could be out of the 400m in Tokyo. Naser could be suspended through the Games. Miller-Uibo is second-fastest since Rio. The third-fastest, Niger’s Aminatou Seyni, said she can’t race the 400m due to the new testosterone cap for women’s events between the 400m and mile, according to multiple reports.

Next fastest: Jamaican Shericka Jackson and Americans Shakima Wimbley, Wadeline Jonathas and Phyllis Francis.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: Usain Bolt shares first photos, name of baby daughter