Different than 1980, but FIU’s Buck-Crockett, USA teammates know what this is like

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Rita 1980 USA 4/17/2020-USA women's national team-USAVWNT 1980

Quarantine has a whole different meaning for Rita Buck-Crockett.

For starters, the FIU beach and indoors coach now has to work at home, which in this case means heading out the back door and settling in for a view of the intracoastal waterway in Fort Lauderdale. 

Birds, fish, her boat … and even her laptop.

For Buck-Crockett, however, this time off hits in more different ways than most college volleyball coaches.

To begin with, she has two teams to consider at her Miami school, a member of Conference USA in indoor volleyball and the Coastal Collegiate Sports Association in beach volleyball.

What’s more, her husband, René Buck, has recovered from the coronavirus, which she’s pretty sure she also battled through in January. 

So she’s really quarantined.

And this is not the first time she’s had a season pulled out from under her. 

Rita Crockett was a member of the 1980 USA women’s team that did not get to go to the Olympics in Moscow. That’s because President Jimmy Carter would not allow USA teams to compete in Russia, which was at war in Afghanistan. Accordingly, the USA, and 64 other countries boycotted the Games, including Canada, China, West Germany, and Japan.

Let’s begin there, 40 years ago.

Buck-Crockett made it clear that the 1980 boycott and losing this NCAA beach season are completely different.

She said that then, they thought, “How does this have anything to do with sport and competition? We were extremely upset because it could have gone a different way for the boycott.”

But, “for what’s happening now, it was unavoidable.”

Coincidentally, just last week, the 1980 USA team got together for a Zoom reunion. They’ve stayed in touch as best they can, with occasional in-person reunions. They were honored in 2010 by USA Volleyball, including coach Arie Selinger and a team of Janet Baier Howes, Carolyn Becker, Patty Dowdell, Laurie Flachmeier Corbelli, Debbie Green, Flo Hyman, Laurel Brassey Iversen, Debbie Landreth Brown, Diane McCormick French, Terry Place Schattler and Sue Woodstra and two alternates, Julie Vollertsen Melli and Sharon Moore Furlong, and, of course, Buck-Crockett. 

Hyman, who like Crockett played for Ruth Nelson at Houston, died in 1986, while Baier passed away in 2016. All the others, except Green, who couldn’t make it, joined the Zoom reunion that Corbelli organized. She was almost giddy talking about the fun they had online. Pulling it off took some coordination, especially since Place Schattler lives in Germany, Vollertsen Melli in Italy (whose son Nicolò plays for the NBA’s New Orleans Pelicans) and Brassey Iverson in Hawai’i.

“It was really amazing. We went for two hours,” Corbelli said. 

In 1980, the USA team was together when they heard about the boycott. They’d been practicing since President Carter brought up the idea in January. They were on a tour with East Germany in April when they found out.

“We were playing in different cities around the country and we were flying into San Antonio on the morning of April 11th, I believe. We had played them the night before. We landed in San Antonio and he had already announced it while we were in the air,” Corbelli recalled.

“We were tired of training in limbo, but we certainly wanted to be ready if we were fortunate enough to get to go. We got off the plane and Rita and I, being from Texas, we knew family would be there waiting at the airport to see us. I remember my sisters and my parents waiting in the airport lounge and when we landed and went in, they were all crying.

“We knew. The whole team knew. That was it.”

“We were all in it together,” Buck-Crockett said. “We all remembered different things. I think I was crying, but I don’t even remember.”

She recalls Selinger putting out bottles of vodka.

“We still had to finish the tour. We still had to play the East Germans. We were so devastated. That night we had a big dinner and the next night we had to play in San Antonio against the East Germans knowing that they were going to go — they were from the Eastern bloc — and we were staying home. The anthem that night was one of the worst moments. We could hardly stand on the end line.”

Corbelli, along with Selinger and teammates Crockett, Green, Hyman and Woodstra, stayed with it and won silver in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. They lost to China in the gold-medal match.

“For the ones from 1980 who did not go on, it has been really, really hard for them. They talk about it all the time. They’re still very bitter. And even those of us who stayed for ’84 are still bitter about ‘80, because we were ranked top three in the world there were a lot of people who said we could likely get the gold. We had beaten Russia recently and they were picked No. 1. We were one of the top three in the world, for sure. And it was devastating.”

And they’ve stayed together since.

“We support each other really well because of what we went through,” said Corbelli, who was the Texas A&M coach for 25 years. “We also sent a note from our ’80 team to the 2020 team. Laurel actually composed it and she wrote to Jordan Larson a note giving our support and our willingness to be there if they want to call. And this was before they postponed. But we knew that not-knowing stage they were in.”

While those 1980 Olympics were gone forever for the USA athletes, this year’s Games have only been postponed. 

Rita Buck-Crockett coaching the FIU beach team

As far as the college season, well, no one knows when the NCAA will conduct the women’s indoor season, but Buck-Crockett knows exactly when the 2020 beach season ended for her FIU team.

It was March 12 and the Panthers, ranked No. 13 in what turned out to be the last AVCA Poll of the season, were headed the next day to South Carolina for a tournament.

“We were having our last practice before we were getting ready to travel and I could see how afraid all of my players were,” Buck-Crockett recalled. “I could just see it. And during the practice I was trying to see if we could take a bus instead of flying because in a bus at least we’re contained among ourselves and there’s a bathroom on the bus. 

“So I was trying to find ways to make it happen.”

As it turned out, FIU athletic director Pete Garcia called and told her the team was not going. 

“And this was before everything got shut down. He said, ‘My conscience would not be OK to allow you to go off campus and go compete when we’re shutting down everything on campus.’

“We were one of the few teams that was supposed to travel. When he said no, I called and pulled out of the tournament (which was ultimately canceled).”

Buck-Crockett said everyone was relieved and she praised Garcia.

“I’m very thankful he could feel the fear in our hearts, because I was afraid, too.”

When the season was canceled, the coach could empathize like few others.

“I really knew how the kids were feeling,” Buck-Crockett said. “Except it’s different, which is health versus politics.”

At FIU this season, “We really had a good team. We were doing well. We will have a good team next year, as well.”

That team, by the way, is sheltering in place in various locations. Her roster, sprinkled with foreigners, make for quite a mix. The two Italians, Margherita Bianchin and Federica Frasca, stayed in Miami. So did German Sophia Brandstetter, Slovenian Nina Petranovic, and indoors player Jovana Vukcevic, who is from Montenegro.

But Emma Erteltova headed home for Slovakia.

“She had to self quarantine for two weeks when she arrived home and that was interesting,” Buck-Crockett said. “Her mom stayed with her in her room so she wasn’t alone and her sister and father stayed in the rest of the house.”

There are seven players on both the FIU beach and indoors teams.

“I have a good staff and both teams have good director of ops,” Buck-Crockett said. She joked that she can’t talk to all her players from both teams in one day, because “I’ll end up with a sore throat,” she said with a laugh.

“We have once a once-a-week double-team meeting on Zoom and I do individual text messaging and we have GroupMe and my girls know that I’m always there for them if they need anything.

“It’s like that for any other coach. I just happen to have two teams.”

Unfortunately, she’s doing the same juggling act with her own family. 

“My husband just got over (COVID-19),” she said. “Now that he’s hopefully recovered — he seems great — so I’m better. I was very worried about him. And here in the house are my nephew and his wife, they’re kind of stuck here from Switzerland. They’ve been here the whole and we had to quarantine (her husband) upstairs and I had to move to another room. You know, thing like that and it was kind of stressful. I’m not gonna lie.”

René Buck actually works in the health-care industry.

“Thank God he’s pretty much over it,” Buck-Crockett said. “He had a mild case but you just never know which way it could turn.”

Buck-Crockett was sick herself in January and, like a lot of people, is pretty sure she had it but was never tested.

“I was very, very sick. I didn’t even go to practice for two days … I couldn’t hardly breathe, I was coughing like crazy, and had deep chest pain.”

What’s more, her daughter Marrita Crockett-Moulton and granddaughter Natasha live in nearby Boca Raton and they normally see each other a few times a week.

“The worst part of this is I haven’t seen my daughter, granddaughter and son-in-law since the week before we found out René was testing positive.”

But, at least if she’s going to stay at home, there’s that backyard view of the intracoastal waterway.

“I’ll send you a picture,” she said with a laugh. And here you go:

Rita Buck-Crockett sitting in her at-home office on the intracoastal waterway in Fort Lauderdale

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