John Kessel writes a tribute to USA Volleyball, paralympic icon Mike Hulett

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Mike Hulett is surprised by USA Volleyball when he was given the 2012 Frier Award, flanked by Great Lakes Region commissioner at the time, Lea Wagner, left, and and future GL commissioner Sandy Abbinanti, right, and another Frier Award winner, Stu McDole/John Kessel photo

Mike Hulett died Thursday at 64. He was an icon in not just paralympic volleyball, but the sport as a whole. Mike was an amazing man who battled through more than most of us could ever imagine.
John Kessel, USA Volleyball’s director of sport development, wrote about the loss of his longtime friend for VolleyballMag.com:

Mike Hulett was one of my heroes.

He put the preciousness of life in a perspective for me for over four decades.

We first played against one another in the then USVBA men’s tournaments, which would start at 8 a.m. and end in the wee hours of the next day, thanks to side-out scoring.

Somewhere along the way his diabetes got worse and, to save his life, over about a two-year period, the doctors had to amputate all four of his limbs, three above the main joint.

That simply detoured his life from player to coach, though when asked how tall he wanted to be on his prosthetic limbs, he said to make him 6-foot-4 so he would be taller than me.

Little did he know, even when he was ultimately confined to his wheelchair and could no longer walk like a tripod, that he still was far taller than me in so many areas beyond actual height.

Mike Hulett

Getting him to coach our USA Sitting men in 1996, and continue in 2000, meant we got to brainstorm how to grow this area of the sport together.

When the Paralympic standing men’s program ceased after 2000, in order to add the women’s sitting discipline for 2004, Mike was my logical choice to take on the challenge of starting a USA team from scratch — from inaugural tryouts, through training and qualification. He always sought to bring the science and research impacting the sport into the gym more intensely than most.

Along with Roger Neppl, who was our new USAV Disabled Commission Vice President, we were lucky to have Denise VanDeWalle as assistant coach. When we qualified by beating Brazil in Brazil for the last spot for the Athens Paralympics, the women were rightfully thrilled. Our staff, however, knew we had to help a very young team. Nearly half of the players were still in high school or younger. They had to experience and learn from the next level, and the Nederland women helped us by adding the USA to a European event in May, about 100 days before the start of Athens.

We went 0-33 and realized what we needed to do next.

All this time, Mike worked full-time in data entry for Walgreen’s in its corporate offices, while giving him the latitude to pursue his Paralympic leadership.

That is one part that amazed my kids — that Mike kept working at a full-time job, AND coached both internationally and for USA Volleyball.

Sure, some days at our training camp we would have to take him to the hospital to get back in sync, which even let me run a practice or two, but the only thing he wanted to do was see the teams and the coaches he was with keep learning, keep getting better. At times he was ornery, barking orders more than teaching, because from his viewpoint things could end anytime and he wanted to make every minute count.

Roger and I roomed with him for weeks at events and when Mike would wake up mad about something, we both had learned to say jokingly, “Mike, you need to get rid of that attitude, or else I am not going to put you together.” And it always worked!

We spent nearly a month in advance of Athens preparing the team at the Olympic Training Center here in Colorado Springs.

To make things as game-like as possible, as Mike requested, I got USA Badminton to loan us a Teraflex court, as that is what we would be sliding on in Athens, and a crowd noise loop to broadcast in the gym.

Mike barked and pushed and learned about his athletes, who we had chosen to represent the USA less than a year before, and then we flew to Athens together. The United charter pilot on the flight over thanked all the “Special Olympians on this flight,” and I thought Mike and about a third of the team might break down the cockpit door in anger. Thanks to Paralympic leaders like Mike we now celebrate and understand the differences between the unique athletes of both groups, and have programs which are some of the best in the world.

The women’s team began its remarkable Paralympic medal run there in Athens, upsetting Slovenia in five sets and Ukraine in four sets in pool play, and everyone one said “We just saw you 100 days ago and you were terrible, where did you come from?”

For me it was simple, from the hard work instilled by Mike that every single player showed, as effort is one of the things we can control in this random, chaotic, wonderful team sport we call volleyball — sitting included.

The ladies went on to defeat Slovenia again in four sets to win the bronze medal, and have never looked back.

Mike coached them to silver in 2008, and then turned the helm over to Bill Hamiter. Lora Webster, a four-time Paralympic medalist and sitting volleyball star put it simply: The two most important things in her life are because of Mike — her USA team selection plus training at the start, and his allowing a 19-year-old player on the national team to meet a male player at the New Orleans US Open — who then became her husband. That, too, shows the impact of Huey.

Mike’s mom, who passed away just a few years ago, was a saint, caring for her son as a loving mom does for over half a century.

The doctors said Mike would not live past 50 … and of course he proved them way wrong, with much of his junior volleyball leadership blossoming as he formed his girls AND boys club, aptly named Adversity in 1999.

His commitment to learning meant I was lucky to teach several CAP courses with him at his facility, and in other places around the world. He served on the board of directors for World ParaVolley until his health situation made international travel just a bit too difficult. Many readers likely saw Mike at USA Volleyball national qualifiers and nationals for both boys and girls, and know how much he loved to talk shop — both to learn and to teach.

I am also very thankful for all the time my own kids got to shag balls for the teams when they visited, and talk with Mike about life and volleyball. He always listened and cared.

Mike Hulett coaching the USA sitting team/USA Volleyball photo

I will close with two favorite stories about my friend and hero.

He spent decades growing the game coaching juniors and was part of our USAV Junior Assembly meetings all that time. Roger Neppl tells how in the first set of meetings he attended with Mike, “the chair asked for someone to be secretary and take notes. Everyone looked down at their shoes … and Mike raised his claw and took notes with his two metal claws on a laptop.”

That was Mike, doing what needs to be done.

The second was in 2012 when I knew Mike would be getting USA Volleyball’s highest honor, the USA Volleyball’s Harold T. Friermood “Frier” Award recipient for lifetime achievement. It came as a surprise to him.

His family was staying hidden in the back of the hall, and I asked Olympian Scott Fortune to sit with us to keep Mike “busy.” Scott did his job and I got a great video of the shock and disbelief of Huey getting selected and rolled up in his chair to the stage, as his family joined and celebrated with him.

I am going to miss interacting with Mike more than these words will ever come close to expressing, and am just thankful for all the time we got to share around our wonderful volleyball family.

***

Mike Hulett graduated from Northwestern University and a was CAP V-rated coach whose incredible resume included founding the Adversity Volleyball Club, and serving on the board of directors of the Great Lakes Region.

He was the head coach of the USA men’s paralympic sitting team in the 1996 and 2000 Olympics and was head coach of the 2004 and 2008 USA Olympics women’s sitting teams. The USA won the bronze medal in Athens in 2004 (see John Kessel’s video below) and won silver in Beijing in 2008.

Great Lakes Region commissioner Sandy Abbinanti fought back tears Friday as she remembered her friend.

“He was a very good person,” Abbinanti said. “The thing that strikes me the most is that you never really thought of him as handicapped. You never thought of him as a quadriplegic. No matter what it was, he was there, no matter if it was coaching in the gym or speaking at a volleyball clinic or whatever. And he was always larger than life.”

Abbinanti laughed when recalling, “I can’t tell you how many times he broke one of his prosethetic arms. He would block a ball and wouldn’t even think about it. He would protect who was ever near him. Or put his arm in front of his face. And he broke his wheelchair the same way.”

Abbinanti said they talked Wednesday about plans for Hulett, as the Great Lake junior rep, to go the upcoming USA Volleyball annual meeting.

“The name of his club,” Abbinanti said. “If there was a person who went through more adversity than I have no idea who it could have been. And he took it stride.”

Doug Beal, the former USA Volleyball player, coach of the USA men’s team that won the 1984 Olympic gold medal, and CEO from 2005-2016, remembered Hulett fondly.

“Mike was extraordinarily challenged because of his disabilities and amputations. Living his life was pretty remarkable and what he was able to do and forge ahead and live as relatively a normal life as he possibly could is the most remarkable part of his story,” Beal said.

“I don’t know anybody who knew Mike or engaged with him that didn’t find him at some level or another inspirational. His ability to have a career and coach and create a junior club and own a facility, coach our women’s sitting team, is just unbelievable. And his role in establishing the viability and growth of the paralympic program within USA Volleyball, he deserves the bulk of the credit, along with John Kessel.”

Jon Aharoni is currently with Team USA at the Beach World Series Open in Pingtan, China. He called Hulett a “legend in our sport.”

“I am deeply saddened by this news,” Aharoni said. “He was a family man who was committed to serving the Great Lakes Region and sitting volleyball. He was honored with the Frier award, which is the pinnacle of achievement in our organization.

“He laid the groundwork for sitting volleyball in our country and our programs would not exist without his trailblazing work. He established a medal-worthy culture in our woman’s team that is alive and well today.

“All this while being a heart attack survivor and an amputee. I send my deepest condolences to his family and friends. I am honored to serve the teams that he gave his life’s work to. Thank you Mike, rest in aloha.”

JVA director Jenny Hahn’s Milwaukee Sting competes in the adjacent Badger Region.

“Mike Hulett is truly one of the heroes of our sport,” Hahn said. “I knew Mike through my years of coaching club. Mike’s road through life was not easy. He inspired me with his positive attitude even in the face of “Adversity.” He inspired so many young athletes to be better and achieve more.”

USA Volleyball also posted a story that includes many photos about Hulett.

And for one more amazing piece from John Kessel about Mike Hulett that he wrote for USA Volleyball in 2014, it’s well worth your while to click here.

 

1 COMMENT

  1. Shocked to see the USAV release.
    I knew him when I was in St Louis for 10 yrs.
    Thank U ,John, for the details of his life … John U remain Johnny volley seed.
    Amazing stuff..

    I know of the challenges
    And I know U and his friends
    Did put him together many mornings …

    Drat.. life moves on even if we protest …
    Yet , he leaves an essence and a spirit surrounding us all ..

    Upward and Onward 👍🙏👼

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