The first issue of Volleyball Magazine appeared in the early months of 1976. Featuring Joe Mica, a UCLA rising star, on the cover, the issue included coverage of the IVA, an indoor pro league, a profile of Wilt Chamberlain, an announcement of Ron Van Hagen's retirement from beach volleyball, and, of course, this article, a recap of the 1975 Pan American Games.
Ah Mexico! Midday siestas under oversized sombreros, dark-eyed Indians dressed in rainbows, tropical getaways with Jose Cuervo and Dos Equis to take the edge off the heat. But more than that, Mexico was a burping donkey drinking beer by the bottle, a mariachi band singing “Hava Nageela,” a successful attempt at détente with visiting Cubans and the VII Pan American Games.
Every four years the countries of the Western Hemisphere united for these athletic competitions, which last year saw 33 countries represented by more than 4,000 athletes. The games comprise an important element in the athletic self-consciousness of the Latin American culture. In the past, they have been the scene of Olympic qualifications, but this is no longer the central significance of the Pan Ams.
For most U.S. athletes, this competition serves as preparation for the Olympic Games, occurring one year later. But for the majority of the Latin American world the games are an end in themselves. It is a forum in which the new Republic of Surinam can assume an international athletic identity and compete on an equal basis with the industrial giant of North America, where the people of Guatemala can stand over a fallen U.S. boxer and hear the 10-count. The 17-man Uruguayan delegation represents its country’s athletic aspirations perhaps more dynamically than the 400 or so U.S. representatives, whose fans back home are more involved in the World Series and Monday night football.
To the countries of South and Central America, for Cuba and the rest of the Caribbean community, this is the international showdown. It’s on the Pan Ams that their national pride is focused. According to the Cuban press, the entire country listens to radio coverage of the volleyball games and loudspeakers carry the play-by-play in most public squares. What an invaluable advantage to have such motivation, how evident that spirit when it’s translated into passes, sets, and hits.
The volleyball competition of the games occurred in the world’s most superb volleyball pavilion—the Juan de la Barrera Olympic Gymnasium. It was built exclusively for the 1968 Olympic competition and designed specifically for volleyball. It was also the site of the 1974 World Volleyball Championships, which saw Stanislaw Gosciniak lead Poland to the title with his amazing setting and acrobatic defense. He is a near-legend in Mexico City as is the 1968 warm-up hitting of the Soviet Union’s Valery Bagalayenkoff. The 4,000-seat arena held over 6,000 fans on occasion during the Pan Am competition and the oval bowl has perfect acoustics to funnel their screams and whistles down to the floor to challenge the players’ composure.
The unbelievably enthusiastic and highly partisan fans were an issue in the outcome of many matches. Young players were staggered by the intensity of the crowd reaction, which sometimes took the form of grapefruits, cups of beer, and ice cubes fired at the playing floor. For the American women’s team, with their verbally cued fast offense, the noise became a technical problem. Even the internationally experienced Cuban men’s team was affected by the crowd. According to their coach, Idolo Herrera, “The public bothered our players very much, even though it was in our support.”
Cuba adjusted, however, and assumed a dominant position during the course of the tournament. Mexico, with its best national men’s team ever, looked like an international power at times in its bronze medal-winning performance. Brazil, with several experienced veterans missing, played exceptionally, finishing second to Cuba and twice winning five-game matches.
The U.S. men’s team, rebuilt after six starters quit last August, played well considering its lack of international experience, consistently hostile crowds, and the intestinal disorders that many of the players had to contend with in Mexico. Venezuela and Peru were also represented by teams with their sights on the South American Olympic qualifications tournament held in November. The hopes of an ambitious Canadian men’s national team were dashed as the squad’s play and then spirit seemed to fall completely apart.
The Cuban women again proved their superiority. Against the second-place Peruvians, they played with a cold resolve born of confidence, experience, and raw power that yielded a 3-0 crush. Mexico’s women took third, showing great spirit and some super play before home fans. Canada, Brazil, and Puerto Rico also had bright spots but lacked the consistency that comes with experience. The American women suffered an emotional breakdown at the end of the tournament to climax their schizophrenic performances early in the competition.
The housing and treatment of the athletes were great, though hardly luxurious. The Pan American Village development was brand new and housed athletes in six-person units. There were maids to change sheets daily and cheer up the sick and wounded from gastric battles. Many maintained that the living conditions and quality of the cafeteria food were some of the best they had ever seen, but the Americans didn’t share that opinion.
Most of the Americans encountered intestinal trouble to some degree, with players Tim Bonynge and Chris Marlow the hardest hit. When Marlowe was told by some of the women to quit complaining, that his stomach cramps were very similar to menstrual pain, he unsympathetically maintained, “I’d rather be pregnant.” But the problem was not his alone. The guards at the gate caught U.S. volleyballers several times smuggling Spam and Nutriment into the village to avoid going to the cafeteria for meals. Marlowe’s face wasn’t the only thing flushed repeatedly in the American quarters during that awkward adjustment period. Cuba had sent its teams to Mexico five weeks early to accustom the athletes to the microbes and altitude.
The coaching staffs of the various teams were rarely natives of the countries that they were training. The Koreans were well represented, providing coaches for the Mexican and Salvadoran men’s teams, as well as the Peruvian, Mexican, and Canadian women. The Cubans employed training techniques brought to them by and East German expert. The Canadian men’s coach was an American, the American women’s coach an Israeli.
One thing that most of them shared, however, is that they were salaried by the volleyball program of each of their countries. The Bahamas and the U.S. men’s program were the only exceptions. Carl McGown, coach of the American men, had achieved great results with his group of hungry young players. He volunteered his services for this fulltime project.
McGown’s team played as well as could have been expected, in fact exceeding most expectations. Some of the players on this inexperienced squad have played indoor, competitive volleyball for as few as two years. Their consistent performance and tough play under pressure from stronger, more seasoned teams is a tribute to the job McGown has done and to the individuals themselves. After a turnover of virtually the entire starting team following the loss to Cuba in the NORCECA Olympic qualifying tournament last August, the younger members of the program rallied together in support of their coach and of each other in a display of character singular in the recent history of the U.S. national teams.
The American women reacted differently in the face of frustration and the tough competition they encountered. Before the competition began the women were full of high spirits. After a good show against the Cubans at NORCECA, they had gone into intensive training in Pasadena, Texas, and everyone was happy with the results. They had increased their vertical jumps by 1-3 inches and sported a new confidence in their coaches and fellow players that gave every reason for optimism.
Their pre-game confidence was encouraging despite the fact that tournament had them paired with Cuba in the first round of the round robin competition (a similar fate befell the U.S. men). That confidence carried them through most of the first game to an 11-8 lead before bad passing, miscues on fast play sets and weak hitting enabled the Cubans, clearly surprised by the new U.S. strength, to squeak by 15-12. After an early lead in game two, the U.S. fought back to a 12-13 score, before losing 12-15. The Cubans won the third game 15-9 to win the match, but not before the Americans, under coach Arie Selinger, demonstrated some strong net play and signs of a good Pan Am showing.
Just a few of the kinks needed to be worked out. “The crowd was so loud that we couldn’t hear our signals,” maintained Laurel Brassey, the team’s starting setter. Aside from these communication problems and some untimely netting and serving errors, the front-row play of Flora Hyman and Pat Dowdell looked impressive even against the strong Cubans. Nelly Barnet, nine-year member of the Cuban women’s team, maintained that these two were real world-class players and made the Americans the strongest she’s ever seen.
After a 3-0 sweep of Puerto Rico, the U.S. women faced the well-coordinated defense and balanced net power of the Peruvian team in what many expected to be a battle for second place. But something was missing in the U.S. play besides points as the Americans lost the first game 15-3. Undisciplined defense with back row players charging the net and frequent miscues on plays were the early signs of incompatibility that were to later manifest themselves in a total team breakdown. While the Americans at times looked overpowering, they mostly looked confused, and the Peruvian women rode consistent court play and hard hitting to an eventual 3-1 victory.
Still down after losing to Peru, the U.S. women started slowly against Mexico, dropping the first two games 15-6, 15-7. Behind 11-5 in the third game, just as they were stabilizing themselves with some consistently poor play, they again went into their Jekyll and Hyde routine, bouncing back to beat Mexico 15-12.
Jerrie McGahan, captain of the U.S. team said, “I was already thinking about the speeches I was going to give people if we lost.” Behind her good play, however, the U.S. continued to handle the Mexicans, winning the match in five games. The Americans then lost to both Canada and Brazil.
To compound their problems, in a team meeting before the Brazil match, Selinger called for the question on rumors that some of the team members were thinking of quitting. Rather than blowing off steam and coming out a tighter group, he discovered that there were irreconcilable differences and that three team members—Terry Condon, Gay Johnson, and Lesley Knudsen—would return to school after the Pan Ams and not continue with the national program. Three other members were considering a similar move. With this information to pep them up, they went out and lost to a Brazilian team that averaged 19 years old and was missing four of its starters. The icing on a catastrophic cake.
The American men, however, turned in a performance that showed hope for the future. The U.S. effort was sadly blemished by the final note of an otherwise positive campaign. On the last night of competition, the U.S. men found themselves battling Brazil for the silver medal—a loss would drop them to fourth place. After two hours and 20 minutes of play, in the fifth and final game against Brazil, the Americans looked to have it in the bag with scores of 10-2 and then 12-5. Suddenly, in five minutes of concentrated effort the Brazilians blocked and dug for 10 straight points as the game and silver medal slipped through the Americans’ hands. The defeat left the U.S. out of the medal money and bitterly disappointed.
For Paul Sunderland the match was particularly painful. He played superbly throughout, blocking well and displaying a diversity of attack that belied his two years of indoor competition. After the game he articulated his frustration. “I’ve played sports all my life and I’ve never been so crushed about losing. Tonight I broke down and cried.”
The young Americans also came close to upsetting the classy Mexican men’s team. For a 9-9 deadlock in the fifth game, the Mexicans took control of the net and scored on American errors in judgment and ball control to reel off six straight points to end the match. The U.S. men beat their physical inferiors 3-0, as in the case of the Bahamas and Venezuela. They crushed the Canadian team by the same score in what many had seen as an even matchup and seriously tested every team they played. Along with Brazil, they were the only team not to bow before the superior Cuban power and but for that sad stretch against Brazil had truly earned the silver medal denied them.
The Cuban men took care of business at the Pan Ams, beating every opponent 3-0. Awesome displays of net strength stopped cold the Mexican and Brazilian daydreams of victory while last-minute toughness from veteran Diego Lopera was necessary to stop the United States. The Cubans always had what was needed in cruising through the tournament without losing a game, a feat accomplished only once before in Pan American Games competition by the American women in 1967.
The current Cuban men’s squad is a 12-man contingent representing a 60-man pool of internationally sophisticated players. Constant exposure to top-quality Eastern European volleyball and a well-managed development program has yielded a young, strong team that may well be heard from in the Olympics next summer. Leonel Marshall and Raul Vilches are playing world-class volleyball and are seasoned players. They are both 21 years old. The veteran Lopera is 23 and is the man the setters usually go to late in critical games. It was his smart play that never let Cuban leads dissolve and carried them to the gold medal.
Similarly for the Cuban women, the 24-year-old Nelly Barnet was the force consistently resorted to in tight action situations. At 6’2”, she repeatedly took control of the net late in games. After a relatively close match against the U.S. women, Nelly explained her importance to the team. “I ask for the sets when it’s a close game. It’s my responsibility to be strong when we’re challenged.” She along with Mercedes Pomares and Mercedes Perez were the Cuban strengths that snapped them out of problem situations and dominated the women’s competition.
The Peruvian women lost only to the Cubans, defeating all other teams 3-0. Their balanced hitting from Luisa Fuentes, Ana Ramirez, Ana Carrillo and Mercedes Gonzales provided too many elements for opponents to successfully stop. Great passing and setting opened up the net and one-on-one blocking just couldn’t stop them. This team has been working out for nine months with the South American Olympic qualifying tournament as its goal. Gonzales, a 20-year-old who has been with the national team since 13, felt her team could earn the right to represent South America in the Olympics.
Originally published in Winter 1976