With a whistle hanging round his neck like a noose, a short, harsh-faced man stands in a dank gym bellowing invectives at 13 women playing volleyball. His eyes, the color of gunmetal, record every move as he sucks relentlessly on an unfiltered cigarette. “Again, again,” he repeats in a guttural voice as the sweat-slicked women dive to the floor for balls. The drained players leave the gym eight hours later. That has been the regimen six days a week. For four years. That is how coach Arie Selinger makes an Olympic champion. Because of him the U.S. women’s volleyball team has a shot at gold at the L.A. Games. “Arie,” 6’5″ hitter Flo Hyman said last fall, “is the program.”
Before the Israeli immigrant took complete control in 1978, the U.S. selected its team haphazardly and it showed: a second-to-last-place finish in Tokyo, ’64; a last place in Mexico City, ’68; and failures even to qualify in Munich, ’72 and in Montreal, ’76. Not much of a record for the country where the sport was invented in 1895 (in Holyoke, Mass.). Under Selinger, however, the U.S. took a bronze medal at the 1982 world championships in Lima, Peru and in recent years has risen to the level of volleyball’s powerhouses: Japan, China and the Soviet Union.
Other coaches look at Selinger’s methods and fear for his players’ mental health. “I don’t endorse the program,” says Mary Jo Peppier, a former Olympian who went on to coach at the University of Kentucky. “We sent some people there and one came back suffering from malnutrition, the other hysterical.” Adds Peppler, “He’s fanatic about that medal. The girls have to give up everything and become almost nunlike. Basically, it’s un-American.”
There’s no question it’s punishing. After the eight hours daily on the court, the players put in one more hour in the weight room. The only day of rest at Selinger’s Coto de Caza, Calif. camp is Sunday. Playing more than 100 matches a year around the world, the women, ranging in age from 20 to 29, have no life away from the court: no jobs, no schooling (many gave up college athletic scholarships to compete) and no marriages. (Selinger too has made sacrifices; he could probably earn 2½ times his reported $40,000 salary if he coached in Europe.)
Yet, the results, the players insist, are proof of the system. “Arie is the best coach in the world,” says Hyman. “If he’s not there, we’ve got no one.” Selinger clearly inspires loyalty; more than half his squad has been with him since the late ’70s. “I’m not a tough coach,” says Selinger, “I’m a demanding one. I like things to be done right or not at all.”
Selinger’s determination can be traced to the dark days of his youth. Born 47 years ago in the Jewish ghetto of Krakow, Poland, Selinger spent his 5th, 6th and 7th birthdays in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. After the war he emigrated to Israel, his mother staying behind to search for her husband who, she later learned, had perished at Auschwitz. Selinger joined the Israeli volleyball team in 1955 and he began coaching the women’s team 10 years later.
In 1969, with his wife, Aia, and three children, he came to the U.S. to study the physiology of exercise. Named coach of the U.S. women’s team in 1975, Selinger was unable to select the players he wanted for three years because of differences with the U.S. Volleyball Association. Institutional squabbles continue to plague Selinger: “When I was given the job,” he says, “the USVBA didn’t have the means, physical or financial, to accomplish what they wanted me to do. Obviously we were on a collision course, and that has been going on for the last eight years.” Still, the USVBA credits him with their team’s success.
But due to the friction, Selinger says he will resign from the team, effective immediately after the Olympics, but will continue to coach. Selinger sees himself as something of a pioneer. “From the beginning,” he says, “my philosophy has been to stake my course, show results and force others to copy me.”