Above It All

1996 WPVA Wrap-Up

Wally Nell
Angela Rock had a solid year in 1996, finishing in the top four 11 out of 12 tournaments and winning once.

From Volleyball magazine December 1996

The suspicion is answered without hesitation. One question and it all floods back, full on like a wet, sandy facial.

“My year?” she snorts. “It ended on a great note—where it should have been all along.”

You think this is selfish? You think this is crybaby?

Walk for a bit in Holly McPeak’s footprints. You’ve worked so hard, and now here you are in the Olympics. And now instead of the time of your life, instead of having a dream fulfilled and being canonized by Bob Costas and frolicking stupid and silly at the closing ceremonies, you’re being exposed by Newsweek and Sports Illustrated for a surgical enhancement that had nothing to do with anything. You’re being poked fun at, looked at, judged. You’re being used as an example of why the sport you’ve poured so much sweat into should never be taken too seriously. She’s the one, they whisper as you walk by, she’s the one who, well, you know.

You’ve worked so hard, and then this.

Step back a bit. To the beginning of the year. Despite being the returning MVP, you start the season on shaky ground, shaky because your partner dumped you last season after 11 straight victories. In the history of the sport, has anyone dumped anyone after 11 straight victories? You tell yourself if won’t happen again and know that it could. And then it does. And then you suck it up, swallow your feelings, stomp on your pride and do whatever it takes to make up with this person who keeps dumping you because the Olympic rules state she has to be your partner. And you swallow so many feelings and stomp on so much pride that soon you lose confidence in yourself, you almost stop liking yourself, and deep down you know that despite all the sweat and time and pain you really aren’t prepared at all. You know you won’t do well, and you don’t. You worked so hard…

“Yeah,” she says, quieter now, more to herself than her questioner, “what about my year?”

*****

The point it not to play she-said-she-said between McPeak and Nancy Reno. Only they will ever know the real reason why America’s best women’s beach volleyball team tore apart and cost the United States an Olympic medal. (Make no mistake—that’s what the upshot of all this was. Between May and October of 1995, when they were happy and winning together, McPeak and Reno defeated gold-medalists Jackie Silva and Sandra Pires six out of seven times.) For one thing, Reno hasn’t said much of anything on the subject and didn’t return phone calls for this story.

The point is to recap the season, and like it or not, this was it. McPeak went on to finish strong, and there were some other interesting developments, and we’ll get to all that presently. But the main story remains The Saga.

The facts are simple. After Reno dumped McPeak last year following their 11 straight victories, they started 1996 together only for Reno to dump McPeak again after three tournaments (and two victories). Then, because they had to play in the Olympics together since they had qualified together through the FIVB World Series Tour standings, they reunited again a few weeks later to prepare for the Games. No longer friends off the court, rarely talking to each other on, they played four tournaments heading into the Olympics.

Bizarre? Wait.

Reno did not have a strong Olympics. Nothing criminal there. Not everyone does. (It may have had something to do with the shoulder Reno had surgery on four weeks after the Games. She hasn’t said.) But she also didn’t show up to the designated practice sessions, leaving McPeak to pepper by herself while her competitors curiously waited their turns to get on the court. And during the Games themselves, the Olympic Games, they still rarely talked during timeouts; often they wouldn’t even look at each other. The most dominant team in the world the past two years finished tied for fifth.

The facts are simple. It’s the feelings behind them that McPeak—the one who was twice dumped, who twice came back—is only now able to release.

“Why did I do it? I thought we could win. I thought it would be worth it. I was wrong.

“I had to sacrifice everything in my life to try and make that work. I gave up everything to make her happy. It was demeaning. Well, maybe not demeaning, but I was unhappy. She wanted total control over the partnership, and I gave it to her. I lost confidence. It took away from my volleyball, from what makes me good.

“In hindsight, I’d never do it again. I’m disappointed that I did it in the first place. But when you’re looking at winning a gold medal, you’re going to do whatever it takes.”

“To see her not have confidence, and to know why,” says Lisa Arce, McPeak’s longtime friend and current partner—hooking up “five minutes” after the Olympics. “I kind of had put Holly up on this pedestal … and she just wasn’t herself.”

“The highlight?” says McPeak. “The highlight was walking into that venue, being appreciated by 11,000 people. But then…”

But then it got worse. And it had nothing to do with volleyball.

She wants to talk about the it—needs to, it sure seems like—but she doesn’t want it published again by name. Too painful. Besides, she says ruefully, everyone knows about it anyway, and again, what does it have to do with anything? “It was a personal choice. If I dye my hair, does that have anything to do with how I play volleyball?” The mass media thought it was great. Perfect. Relying on little more than scuttlebutt and in spite of Reno’s staunch denials, some of the media blithely threw out the rumor that the reason Reno had dumped McPeak twice, and thus the reason they didn’t do well at the Games, had its roots in Reno’s unhappiness over her partner’s personal decision. That Reno thought it created a bad image for the sport. It became the hot little story, the wink-wink scoop. After all, what could be more beach volleyball? The tears in McPeak’s voice are painful.

“Nobody asked me. None of them. SI? No. Never. Newsweek? No, I had no idea it was even coming. I found out reading it along with everyone else. I was totally blown away. It hurt. It hurt a lot.

“Everyone who knows me knows how hard I work. And then all I read about is “she did such and such to make herself look better.’ Hey, I’m a person. Not ever in one of those articles did they say how I played volleyball. And I played really well in the Olympics. Every time, it was like please tell me this article won’t be about that. Please tell me that.”

*****

In any other year, Karolyn Kirby would have been the story. The sport’s all-time victory leader played with one partner and won 11 times in 1994. In 1996, she played with six partners and won twice, once while the tour’s best were at the Olympics. What happened? What does the future hold?

Or Liz Masakayan. After a frustrating year, she and her omnipresent knee brace plan to take half of next season off, as an only-way-back kind of thing. What does the future hold for her?

Or Gail Castro and Deb Richardson, who have three combined career victories and finished no higher than fifth this year, yet qualified for the Olympics.

Or Linda Hanley and Barbara Fontana-Harris. As their peers played a game of musical partners ridiculous even by WPVA standards, they stuck together the whole year and finished a U.S.-best fourth at the Olympics.

Or Dennie Shupryt-Knooop, 40, who missed the Olympics by one point. She’s a former marathoner, a late entrant into the sport and is playing better now than ever. Some think she could be better at 44.

Or Arce, 27. Last year, she had zero career wins. Now she has four.

It is again the WPVA’s loss that its summer was more soap opera than season. The previous few years it was the politics and hard feelings surrounding the AVP women’s tour fiasco, now it’s this.

The bright side is this episode seems to have ended on a bright note. McPeak and Arce won three of the last four events, becoming the youngest team (combined 54) to win a tournament. Overall, McPeak won eight events, a record $88,025 and is the Volleyball Player of the Year for the second straight year.

“It does feel great,” McPeak says. “I’m proud of it. I had to suffer through a lot of different situations this year. I deserve it. It’s about time.”

For Lynda Johnson, Timing is Everything

Don’t tell Lynda Johnson that 32 is too old to be named Rookie of the Year.

Even though some of her fellow rookies have barely reached the drinking age, Johnson-Black says she fits in, noting that she’s technically young on experience.

“I started picking up the beach around 1990, but I wasn’t a ‘beach player’—I was just starting to learn the game,” she says. “Whenever a (WPVA) tournament stop would come into San Diego I’d jump in, just to get the experience.”

Johnson-Black didn’t decide to get serious until this year, thanks to jobs as a director of a health club and assistant coach with the U.S. women’s national team.

“I was really committed to a lot of other things,” she says. “And I didn’t want to jump right in until I felt I could really compete full-time and be successful.”

Eventually though, the lure of the game was too strong. Johnson-Black, who was a four-time All-American at Portland State, the 1985 NCAA Division II Player of the Year and a member of the U.S. national team, wanted to play. But she wanted to do it right.

“I didn’t want to do anything halfway,” she says. “If I was going to commit to playing, I wanted to do it right by practicing, training, and committing to every single tournament.”

She quit her job, found a sponsor and began her first full season on tour. Early on, she played with a few different partners, then settled with Jackie Campbell. Her best finishes this year were three ninths.

“Jackie was a really good partner for me to have because she’s also 32, but she’s been on the tour 10 years,” says Johnson-Black. “To have someone tell me all the nuances of the game that you can only get when you’re on the tour for a while, that was great.”

The pair became a top-15 seed.

“We were like the ball-control team, and we gave a lot of people fits,” laughs Johnson-Black. “We dug a ton of balls; we were smart with our shots; we had a steady game.”

They scored a handful of upsets, most notably against fifth-seeded Dennie Shupryt-Knoop and Elaine Roque at Newport, Rhode Island.

“It was a whomping,” she says. “I think we beat them like 15-7.” Actually it was 15-5.

Things dropped off a little for Johnson-Black as the season wound down, partially because of her impending wedding.

“I got a little distracted,” she says. “But that’s part of being a rookie, too. You have to learn to be mentally tough.”

Still, she ended her rookie year with the 10th-highest point total of any rookie in the WPVA history and the seventh-best earnings. That helped bring her a landslide victory in Rookie of the Year voting.

“I feel like I’ve accomplished a goal,” she says. “You set out to do what you have to do, and when you finally accomplish it you feel really good. Then you reevaluate and see where you go now.”

Originally published in December 1996

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