The Summer Olympics come once every four years, but for University of San Diego volleyball coaches Tammy Webb-Leibl and Brent Hilliard, memories as United States athletes on sport’s grandest stage are permanent.
Both have a bronze medal to show for their effort at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Spain, as players on the U.S.’ indoor volleyball teams. The “Once an Olympian, Always an Olympian” slogan is true.
“Very few people get the opportunity, it’s really unique,” said Hilliard, who at 22 was the youngest member of the 1992 team. A post-Olympics knee injury and slow recovery, however, prevented him from more appearances. “I recently did a kids’ clinic and someone requested I bring (the medal). It’s something I’m proud of and a reminder that it’s difficult to get to the Olympics and to earn a medal. There are a lot of sacrifice and training involved.”
Webb-Leibl, then Tammy Webb-Liley, was an outside hitter for three Olympics (1988, ’92 and ’96). The former Arizona State University standout enjoyed each appearance. Not even a seventh-place finish in Seoul, South Korea could detract from her inaugural experience.
“The first Olympics was a huge honor and it’s the only one my parents went to,” she said. “Making the team was awesome. Since it was my first one, I didn’t know what to expect. We walked around, met great athletes from other countries, saw their cool uniforms and exchanged Olympic pins.”
The 1988 team was young and inexperienced, but Coach Terry Liskevych employed a different strategy for 1992.
“He wanted us to play together for four years, so we didn’t let us play internationally on our own,” she said. “It takes three good years to get to a level to compete against the best. We trained and played year-round. We went to Japan, Russia, Cuba, Switzerland and Turkey. We played in the World Cup, Canada Cup and Pan-Am Games.”
The women went 4-2 in Barcelona, defeating Brazil for the bronze, and only the second medal won by the U.S. women’s indoor program. Webb-Leibl cherished it: “I was proud to represent my country and proud of myself. There was a lot of sacrifice and hard work to get there, a lot of pride.”
Four years later in Atlanta, however, the U.S. was seventh again. “There were higher expectations in 1996, especially since we’d won the Grand Prix in 1995. Atlanta was a disappointment. It made me realize how hard it is to medal.”
One Olympics to Remember
Hilliard stepped into a pressure situation in 1992 — before and during the Olympics.
The U.S. men had won gold in 1984 and 1988, but the 1992 team featured an equal number of Olympics veterans and rookies. But Hilliard, a four-time NCAA All-American and a member of the 1991 NCAA national championship team at Long Beach State, was ready.
A controversial first match against Japan changed everything. Initially a five-set U.S. victory, it was overturned when Japan protested an official’s failure to execute a rule against U.S.’ Bob Samuelson in a yellow/red card situation. The referee should have awarded Japan a point, which would have clinched the third set of the match, but instead, the match continued. The protest was filed, resolved quickly and Japan was awarded the victory.
“We went and put our heads together,” Hilliard said. “We wanted to do something and the only thing we could get away with was shaving our heads.”
The U.S. eventually topped Cuba for the bronze medal.
As for shaving his head, Hilliard can joke about it now: “I was 6-foot-5, 175 pounds with good hair. It was a really bad look for me and took two months to grow back. I’ve done it once. I won’t ever do it again.”
Hilliard, though, wished he could have played in more Olympics. The opposite-side/right-side hitter enjoyed Barcelona, including the chance to be around U.S. Basketball’s “Dream Team” players such as Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan.
He also misses what the Olympics provided him as a player: “Every competitive athlete wants to measure himself against international competition. You play club, high school and college and, if you’re fortunate, the Olympics, which is by far the highest level for volleyball.”
Olympics Experience, USD’s Advantage
Hilliard and Webb-Leibl can draw on their playing experiences and incorporate it into their coaching jobs for USD’s women’s volleyball program and head coach Jennifer Petrie. Hilliard is associate head coach and has been at USD since 2001. Webb-Leibl returns to the Toreros program this year after previously coaching here from 1993-99. Another assistant, Chris Jackson, is currently in London with the U.S. men’s national team as an assistant coach/technical coordinator.
Having Olympics experience on the coaching staff doesn’t guarantee success, but when the Toreros are preparing for a big match or need a motivational lift, it can be a useful source.
“I have the experience of playing volleyball at the highest level and I feel comfortable giving feedback to our high-caliber athletes about what type of athlete it takes to succeed at that level,” Hilliard said. “Some coaches can’t draw on that. For Tammy and myself, it adds credibility. Chris has his perspective, too. Our (USD) team has a lot of great athletes. All they need is the experience.”
— Ryan T. Blystone
Brent Hilliard photo courtesy of scottphoto.net