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.”

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USOPC proposes more athletes on board as part of overhaul

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DENVER (AP) — The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee is proposing an increase in athlete representation on its board and a recasting of its mission statement to include the job of promoting athletes’ well-being.

These changes are part of a proposal, released Monday, to rewrite the USOPC bylaws.

The rewrite comes 20 days after federal lawmakers — looking for a shake-up in the wake of the sex-abuse scandal that has tainted the U.S. Olympic movement — proposed their own drastic overhaul of the law governing the USOPC.

The USOPC portrayed its proposals as merely a first step, and, indeed, the measures lack many of Congress’ more aggressive proposals.

But they would heed athletes’ calls for more representation, by increasing their makeup on the board from 20% to 33%.

They would also change the mission statement to read: “empower Team USA athletes to achieve sustained competitive excellence and well-being,” where previously the well-being part was not mentioned.

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Why a 62-year-old played at the world badminton championships

Mathew Fogarty
Courtesy Mathew Fogarty
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Mathew Fogarty said badminton’s European elite made fun of him for playing professionally at age 59. That was three years ago. Fogarty still competes at the sport’s highest level, taking part in the world championships that began Monday in Basel, Switzerland.

Fogarty, who turns 63 on Oct. 30, is older than any U.S. Olympian in any sport since the St. Louis 1904 Games, according to the OlyMADMen.

“I play because I can, and I’m a doctor, and I think sports is a really important part of people’s health and fitness,” said Fogarty, who has played competitively since age 7, whose full-time job is a psychoanalyst and who is based in the Los Angeles area. “I’ll stop badminton when I can no longer qualify. There’s still opportunity, and I love the sport. I’m going to continue to do the best I can.”

He lost in the first round of mixed doubles at worlds on Monday. Fogarty and partner Isabel Zhong, a 27-year-old with an IMBD profile, saw their world championships end in 23 minutes, a 21-9, 21-10 loss to a Ukrainian pair.

That was more competitive than Fogarty’s last two worlds appearances — a 21-6, 21-4 loss with Zhong in 2018 and a 21-2, 21-4 loss with another partner in 2017. Fogarty’s only international match wins in the last two years came via walkover or the one time his singles opponent retired after three points, according to his World Badminton Federation profile. He won an international tournament as recently as 2011 and said his career-high mixed doubles world ranking was 32.

He and Zhong paired because they were part of the same Manhattan Beach Badminton Club, and she wanted to qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Games, Fogarty said. Zhong did not respond to an interview request.

“I told her I didn’t know if we could do it, but we could try,” Fogarty said. “It’s extremely remote [chances] … slim to nil.”

The top mixed doubles team from the North and South American region is in line to qualify for the Olympics. The leaders in qualifying so far are Canadians ranked 19th in the world. Fogarty and Zhong, though they are the only U.S. mixed doubles team at worlds, are 67th in the world in Olympic qualifying and third among Americans.

The U.S. has never earned an Olympic medal in badminton, which debuted at the 1992 Barcelona Games. Mixed doubles was added starting at Atlanta 1996, but the U.S. has put just one mixed team into an Olympics, getting swept out of pool play in Rio.

Fogarty, who has never played at the Olympics, is able to play at worlds for a few reasons: he can fund his way to international events to accumulate ranking points; the U.S. is historically weak and has a lack of players with professional ambitions; mixed doubles is the least common of the Olympic disciplines.

“Matt takes it seriously,” said Dean Schoppe, a fellow 62-year-old who has known and played with Fogarty for nearly a half-century. Schoppe recently retired from pro badminton himself. “Matt still approaches the matches with the actual idea of winning,”

Schoppe called Fogarty the best American junior player of his generation in the late 1970s.

“Most badminton players retire at about 26 or 27 with their first catastrophic injury, which is usually a torn Achilles,” he said. “There are people who are born [to play], you see it in every sport. Magic Johnson, they have the peripheral vision. They have the balance. They have all the intangibles that other people have to try to learn and can’t.

“He has the gift. He can look at you peripherally and see that you’re leaning. … Fogarty can hold the serve and turn his shoulders and do crap that makes you fall over, and that infuriates.”

Mathew Fogarty
Badmintonphoto/BWF

Fogarty took breaks from the sport for medical school in the 1980s and ’90s. He returned in the late 1990s and kept playing deep into his 40s, 50s and now 60s in part, he said, to challenge corruption within the sport.

Fogarty had legal battles with USA Badminton. He said that past officials broke up his Olympic hopeful partnership with a teenager in men’s doubles to push others toward the 2000 Sydney Games.

“The last thing they wanted was a 42-year-old with an 18-year-old trying to make the Olympics,” Schoppe said.

USA Badminton recently had mass resignations among its board and top officials amid reports of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee threatening decertification.

USA Badminton’s new interim CEO, 1992 and 1996 Olympian Linda French, declined comment on Fogarty’s past issues with the organization because she was not formally involved at the time.

“We’re hopeful to move forward in a positive manner and wish all our athletes continued success,” French said.

Fogarty does not know how much longer he will travel the world, or even the U.S., to play competitively. A 43-year-old told him at a recent event that Fogarty was his inspiration to keep playing.

“The nature of sports is you can’t predict what it’s going to be,” Fogarty said.

Schoppe dismissed a question of whether it’s easier to play badminton at such a ripe age than other physically demanding sports.

“Imagine pulling out James Worthy and say, OK, James you are now starting for Golden State and you’re playing the Lakers tomorrow,” Schoppe said. “You cannot be old in badminton and do well in badminton. It’s nothing like baseball.

“We were the anomaly of anomalies to have success in our 40s. Nobody does.”

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