Bev Oden‘s Facebook page has 168 photographs—nary a one of them depicting her on the volleyball court.
Why? Because Bev, one of the greatest American volleyball players in the history of the sport, doesn’t think of herself in such terms. Her e-mail address doesn’t include her uniform number (a very common practice among retired jocks). The walls in her house aren’t covered with yellowed clippings and framed photos. To get Bev to talk of her athletic glory, you have to bribe her. Or at least trick her. In this case, I’m buying her dinner.
It’s a fair trade-off.
In 1990, Bev, a middle blocker for Stanford, was the NCAA Player of the Year, and she was the first woman in the history of the sport to earn AVCA first-team All-America honors four times. She was a star on the Cardinal team that won the 1992 national title, and has a resume both long and impressive.
Best of all (for this Quaz), she was an Olympian.
In 1996, Bev was a starter on the United States team that placed seventh in the Atlanta Games. Although long disappointed in the result, Bev possesses wonderfully fond, rich memories of her Games experience. Here, she talks about what it means (and takes) to be an Olympian; about life in the Olympic village and the bond that participants eternally share. Bev covers volleyball for About.com, Tweets here, and works as a documentary film maker. She also, woof!, owns her own dog walking franchise in Southern California.
Full disclosure: Bev is one of my closest friends—and truly one of the most decent, wonderful people I have ever known. It is an honor to drag, eh, have her here.
Bev Oden, the Quaz is yours …
JEFF PEARLMAN: Bev, so the Olympics are now on in my house at all hours. We’re absorbed. Beyond absorbed. A recurring theme seems to be one of conquering a dream;of giving up a social life and ice cream and, well, fun, to become an Olympian. Maybe I’m a skeptic, but a part of me thinks, “Uh, no way it’s worth it.” I mean, Olympic glory is great—and, for a precious few, it can turn into millions of dollars and media and/or coaching careers. But mostly, it seems sorta fleeting. So, Bev, is all the work and suffering and damnation worth it for making the Olympics?
BEV ODEN: It is unquestionably worth it. I love the Olympics and I have since I was five years old watching Nadia Comaneci score a perfect ten. I don’t have a lot of memories from age five. But that one is imprinted on my brain. My Olympic experience was disappointing but I wouldn’t trade it for the world. So few people on earth get to know what it feels like to be one of the best in the world at something. Even fewer get to take that ability to an Olympic Games and compete at the highest level for their country.
I think that is why everyone is so fascinated by it. It’s incredible and people want to be a part of it somehow, either by making the trip to the host country or immersing themselves in the coverage as you and your family are doing. That fascination is what makes the reporters keep asking the athletes the same question: “What is it like?” I think athletes give terrible answers to this question. They all give the same pat answer about pride, honor, etc., etc. I think the reason the answers to this question are so uninteresting is because there are really no words to express how awesome it is. I feel fortunate to know that feeling and I have just as much trouble as everyone else expressing it. Take my word for it. It rocks.
Anything I missed out on, all the hard work, the sacrifice, the blood, sweat and tears, it was more than worth it. The moment is only fleeting for those watching from the couch. For Olympians, that accomplishment is something we take with us forever. It’s not about how much money you can make off of it, or what kind of career you can ride it into. That stuff comes for some, but it is not why most of the athletes are there and why they’ve worked so hard for so many years. It’s about the chance to perform your best against the best in the world. It doesn’t always turn out well, but regardless of the outcome, the experience is its own reward.
The motto of the Olympic Committee is “Once an Olympian, always an Olympian. Never former, never past.” We feel that. We live that. It is an exclusive club and I am glad to be a part of it.
J.P.: In 1996 you were part of a U.S. women’s volleyball team that placed a disappointing seventh. I think people like to believe that the Olympics are about unity and the spirit of athletic glory and blah, blah, blah. Yet you’ve indicated to me that your Olympic experience was sort of miserable. A. Why? B. Does not winning an Olympic medal=failure in the minds of most participants?
B.O.: The Olympics are about all of the things that people say they’re about. I know it may seem corny or made up, maybe even impossible from the outside, but I don’t know an Olympic athlete that doesn’t buy into it. I was in Barcelona, I played in Atlanta, I went to Athens and I am planning on making the trip to Rio in 2016. The reason I love to travel to Olympic Games all over the world is because there is a spirit there that I have never seen anywhere else.
The whole world comes together, yes to compete against one another, but with a spirit of cooperation and mutual respect that doesn’t normally exist in the world.
If you’ve never traveled to an Olympics, I highly recommend it. You meet people from everywhere. Everyone is friendly and open. You find ways to communicate with each other, sometimes with hand signals, sometimes with broken fragments of languages you’ve picked up over the years. You find yourself toasting with strangers and trading goods and taking pictures with random people you just met on the street. The boundaries of normal society don’t apply here. The best word I can think of to describe it is Utopia.
It’s not accurate to say that my Olympic experience was miserable. It wasn’t. I was disappointed with the result of my competition. But the experience of the Olympics was fantastic. In my head those are two separate things.
It’s difficult when you work your entire athletic life for something and it doesn’t go as planned. Our team was hit with some very badly timed internal issues that threw us off of our game. We also got a terrible draw in the playoffs and were matched up with the No. 1 team in the world in the quarterfinal round. Winning a medal was not meant to be for us.
There are a lot of athletes that make it to the Olympics that have no shot at winning a medal. They know it and they’re fine with it. They are just happy to be there. It wasn’t like that for my team. We knew we had the talent and skill to medal, we went there with the sole purpose of winning. We didn’t do it. It was heartbreaking.
I don’t know if athletes think that leaving without a medal is failure. I’m sure some do and some don’t. For the record, I don’t. I know that our culture believes it’s failure by the way people talk about it and by what the commentators say. That sentiment is thrust upon us as athletes and we feel it weighing on our shoulders as we compete. I’m bothered by the emphasis on medals and winning. I’m bothered that whenever someone finds out I’m an Olympian, I know exactly what their next question will be. “Did you win?” I hate that my answer is no.
What upsets me the most is that we were better than two of the three teams that ultimately won medals. But because of the way things played out, no one will ever know that. People will look at where we finished and think that’s the whole story. We were better than that.
J.P.: You come from a very Olympic, very volleyball family. You’re one of three sisters, all of whom have competed in the Olympics in volleyball. How the heck do you explain this? As is, you’re all tall and athletic. But how did you, specifically, become volleyball players? And would you recommend such a path to the parents of young kids dreaming of glory?
B.O.: My dad played volleyball in the military so he took my oldest sister Kim to a gym to play with a local team. She fell in love with the sport and was good at it. All four of us Oden kids were good athletes. Volleyball was only one of the sports we played. My sister Elaina was a five-sport athlete in high school. I competed in softball, soccer and track.
Yes, we’re all tall and have athletic builds so that is part of it. The other part is having the drive and the dedication to develop that natural talent. It is unusual that all three girls had that, but we share the same genes and I suppose it comes from our parents.
Both of my sisters played volleyball because they loved it. I played because it was a means to an end. I saw my sister Kim earn a full ride to Stanford because of her ability to play volleyball. I knew that my parents couldn’t afford to send me to a school like that so if I wanted to go, I needed to do the same.
I wanted to go. I was more into school than I ever was into volleyball. I think I would have been a lot better at the sport if I had loved it like my sisters did. As it was, I still got pretty good. Good enough to earn a scholarship to Stanford and good enough to be the starting middle blocker in the Olympics.
I would definitely recommend this path to parents. Just make sure it is something the child wants and not the parent living out some unfulfilled dreams of their own. That always ends badly. Also make sure the kids are not just in it for the glory. There is much more to it than that. I received an awesome education from one of the best schools in the world for free. I traveled all over the world. I competed in the Olympics. I learned a ton about myself during this process and a lot about life. What I learned from playing sports still helps me everyday in everything – my career, my relationships, my health. The benefits for girls specifically are never ending.
J.P.: What does it feel like—really, really feel like—the successfully spike a ball in a huge game at a huge moment?
B.O.: First of all, never use the word “spike.” It’s cheesy. But in answer to your question, it feels great to HIT (the acceptable word) a ball in a huge game at a huge moment. One of the things I miss the most about sports is the incredible highs. You just don’t get those kind of highs in life. Yes, there are good moments, but there is nothing like the rush of pure joy that come from those clutch moments. More than getting a KILL (another acceptable word), I loved to block an opponents ATTACK (also acceptable) straight down to the floor. That was the best feeling. Not only did you do something great, but you got to demoralize your opponent in the process. Priceless.
J.P.: Danielle Scott-Arruda is 39 and playing on her fifth Olympic volleyball team. You’re only a year older than her, and haven’t played competitively since 1996. How hard is it to maintain the physicality to play at such a high level? Like, I think most sports fans tend to think success is more about physical gifts than work. How much work goes into reaching such a high level, and how hard is it to maintain your body as it ages?
B.O.: I think it varies from person to person. Some people are just built more sturdily than others. Dani is a freak of nature. Volleyball is very tough on the body, lots of jumping and landing lots of swinging and pounding. A career that long is extremely rare.
I wouldn’t know what it is like to try to maintain a high level as your body ages. I retired from volleyball at 25. Volleyball players tend to peak in their late twenties so I was still on the upswing. I had no injuries to speak of, I was the picture of health. I don’t know how long that would have lasted if I had continued to play, but after the Olympics I had no desire to find out.
I never wanted to be the player that stayed too long at the party. I knew I wanted to get out before I was replaced, but I had no intention of leaving as early as I did. The original plan was to go overseas to play, make some money and return to the States in time for the 2000 Olympics. But I was so disillusioned by the way things went in Atlanta, I changed course and retired immediately, opting instead to get some work experience while I was still young enough not to mind starting at the bottom.
So I can’t talk about aging as an elite athlete, but I can tell you what it takes to get to that level in the first place. It takes everything you have. Most Olympians have been pushed to a point well beyond what they thought they had to give. You just have to keep pushing and pushing. Pushing through pain, pushing through exhaustion, pushing through distractions. This is one thing that I don’t think people fully understand because the athletes make it look so easy. The amount of focus that Olympic athletes have to embody in order to be the best is otherworldly.
I now write about volleyball for About.com and I report on the current Olympians. Before they left for London I got to interview quite a few of them and I was struck by how laser focused they are. They have to have tunnel vision. Everything is about being the best you can be and doing what’s best for the team. It has been a while since I’ve been around such focus. I had it once, but in the real world, you really don’t need it. I spend my time doing a million things at once and of course a few little things always slip through the cracks or don’t get done as well as I’d like. There’s no room for that when you’re training for the Olympics. Every little detail matters and you always need to execute to perfection or as close to it as you can manage. It doesn’t matter if you’re sick, or hurt, or going through something in your personal life. You have to bring it every day or you won’t make it. Some other athlete is always right behind you, breathing down your neck, waiting for a chance to take your spot. Dealing with all of this is beyond difficult and it is the reason why everyone can’t be an Olympian.
J.P.: Greatest moment as a volleyball player? Lowest?
B.O.: The greatest moment was winning a national championship my senior year at Stanford. We were the underdog and we beat our archrivals UCLA in the final. We hated each other. They were undefeated and about to go down as the greatest volleyball team ever. We were in a rebuilding year. We won the championship at the Pit in Albuquerque, the same place where NC State upset Houston in college basketball and Jim Valvano ran across the floor. I couldn’t have written a better script. It was by far my most satisfying victory.
Lowest was one year earlier. We were No. 1 in the nation my junior year and we played UCLA in the regional final. They dismembered us in our own house. It was humiliating. Half of our starting line up was graduating. I thought that was my last chance at a championship. I was too embarrassed to go back to my dorm and face the pity in everyone’s eyes. So I went to the quad and sat in front of Stanford’s very ornate Memorial Church. I stared up at the mosaic of Jesus and wondered how He could have let this happen. After several hours I slinked back to my dorm room after everyone had gone to bed successfully avoiding all my friends. If you had told me at that point what we would accomplish the very next season, I would not have believed it. Life is strange.
J.P.: Is it hard watching the Olympics? What I mean is, I know you no longer have a desire to play, and at 41 it’d be pretty impossible. But do you experience any pings of jealousy? Any longing of past glory when you see others experiencing it?
B.O.: It has definitely been hard to watch the Olympics for the last 12 years. Not because I am jealous of anyone or anything, but because I have such unresolved feelings about what happened for me and my team there. I have no desire to do it over again, but I do wish things had unfolded differently. I wish the coaches and staff had made different decisions, I wish my teammates and I would have handled the adversity differently. I wish a lot of things were different. I feel like I’ve turned a corner with the disappointment in the last couple of years. I am truly enjoying watching the London games, rooting for the American teams and dwelling less and less on my own outcome. I think I will continue to heal with time. It’s a little like mourning the death of my dream of winning an Olympic medal. The dream was years in the making. Letting it go takes years as well.
J.P.: The world has had many discussions about what it’s like to be African-American, but what is it like to be a very tall African-American woman? Are there stereotypes one must endure? Difficulties one must face?
B.O.: I love it. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I could do without being called sir all the time, even when I’m wearing a skirt, but I love being tall and I love being African American. There aren’t many African Americans where I live, so I stand out. People stare, they whisper, they ask me if I played basketball, they all have the same jokes. I laugh politely. I deal with the stereotypes that every other African American lives with. It’s a part of life.
J.P.: Several years ago you had an opportunity to go into volleyball color commentating—and turned it down. Why?
B.O.: No interest. Not my thing. I don’t enjoy public speaking, being on television or being the center of attention. I struggled with that when I played volleyball. I never liked people watching me play. I’d encourage my friends and family NOT to come to matches. I always played better on the road because I loved not knowing anyone in the crowd. I fed off of the hostility of the opposing fans. Truthfully, I’d rather have played in a back alley than on national TV. I dealt with it because that was a part of the sport. I love not having to do it anymore.
J.P.: What is it like living in the Olympic village? Literally, what do you recall from the experience? And is one wishing she could stay forever, or itching to leave ASAP?
B.O.: The Olympic Village is one of my best memories. I visited my sisters in the Barcelona Olympic Village and I experienced the Atlanta Olympic Village as an athlete. I’m not sure if they’re all the same but I can tell you what it was like back then. The rooms were not that great. All 12 of us had to stay in one small suite with two bathrooms. Very close quarters and very inconvenient for 12 women who are all on the same schedule. The swimmers were down the hall from us. Since they finish their competition in the first days and weeks, they started partying almost immediately. The volleyball competition spans the entire two weeks so listening to them as they let loose and kept us up at night was maddening. But those are the only two complaints I have about the Village.
The Olympics is such a huge event and there is so much activity going on all around you all of the time. The media, the fans, friends and family who want to see you. It’s all swirling around you. It feels chaotic, but you have to block it out concentrate on the reason you’re there. When you’re out and about you feel all of that. But the second you enter the Olympic Village all of that noise falls away. Once you get past the high level security measures and walk into the village, there is a sense of calm and quiet. You’re surrounded by your brethren, the people who get it. They know what you’re going through because they’re going through it themselves.
In the Village, I am not tall. People don’t stare. It’s amazing to look around and realize you’re in the presence of hundreds of the athletes who are at the top of their games. Everyone is in unbelievable shape.
McDonald’s is always a sponsor and in Atlanta they had a section of the cafeteria and little booths around the village where you could get all the fries and burgers you wanted for free. I loved that. But you can’t play in the Olympics on McDonald’s fries, so the cafeteria food is also fantastic. They have everything you could possibly need to eat in order to perform well. They also had ice cream. Lots of it.
There were concerts every night by popular artists, famous singers, bands and musicians. We couldn’t always go because we had to prepare for our matches. But we had a blast at the ones we were able to make. There is dancing and fraternizing and trading of sweats, T-shirts and pins with other athletes. It is Utopia inside Utopia. I’ll never forget it.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH BEV ODEN:
• Have you ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, please elaborate: All the time. Turbulence freaks me out. With every passing year I get a little more freaked out when I hit turbulence. I figure it is a numbers game. Sure, you’re more likely to die in a car crash than a plane crash. But the more times you board a plane, the better the chances that you’ll eventually go down in flames. I know that’s not how odds work. But it is how my brain works.
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Pizza Hut lunch buffet, Natalie Williams, Kobe Bryant, Celine Dion, Thanksgiving leftovers, Delaware Blue Hens, Bryce Harper, seashells, Alf, Emmanuel Lewis, Bethesda, Maryland, graham crackers: 1. Thanksgiving leftovers; 2. graham crackers; 3. Pizza Hut lunch buffet; 4. Natalie Williams; 5. Seashells; 6. Emmanuel Lewis; 7. Delaware Blue Hens; 8. Bethesda, Maryland; 9. Bryce Harper; 10. Celine Dion; 11. Alf; 12. Kobe Bryant.
• Five greatest volleyball players of your lifetime: Flo Hyman, Debbie Green, Rita Crockett, Karch Kiraly, Kim & Elaina Oden (I know, that’s six, but I can’t exclude my big sisters!)
• What do you think Flo Hyman would have done with her life, had she been alive today?: I didn’t know Flo, but she was my idol when I was growing up and the reason I wore the number seven on my jersey. I have no idea what she’d be doing professionally now, but I would guess that in her spare time she would be giving speeches, inspiring young people, possibly coaching and being a great ambassador for our sport in her spare time.
• You’re offered $5 million to sign a two year contract with the Gary (Indiana) Hitters of the brand-new Indiana Volleyball Association. You in?: Absolutely not. My life choices have never been about maximizing my income, they have been about doing what I enjoy. I would not enjoy pounding my aging body into the ground in a place far from home for any amount of money.
• Four adjectives best to describe little league parents (the loud ones): I have no experience with little league or sports parents (thankfully) so I can’t condemn people who obviously care passionately about their kids. I’m sure they’re very nice people when they’re not being obnoxious.
• Five reasons to make Orange County your next vacation destination?: 1. Beautiful beaches; 2. Great outdoor activities (hiking, biking, water sports, etc.); 3. Best shopping on earth; 4. Perfect weather all year long; 5. Just a few short hours away from road trips to the mountains, the desert, San Diego, LA, Palm Springs, Santa Barbara and Vegas. You can surf and snowboard on the same day. It’s amazing.
• Best book you’ve ever read (not including the Bible): It really is The Bible. Seriously. I’m also a huge fan of Lance Armstrong so I really enjoyed the book about his cancer battle “It’s Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life.” You know what else is up there? “Sweetness.” Not just saying that. [Writer's note: Shucks]
• What should Penn State have done with the Joe Paterno statue?: It needed to come down.
• You don’t curse. What are your go-to substitute words when others would curse?: Freaking, frigging, moron, mofo, shoot, gosh darn it and fudge. But for the record, these are not substitute words. I’m not saying them in place of curse words. Curse words never spring to mind even when I hurt myself or get startled. Words that you never say and don’t think about don’t slip out on accident. That’s my secret.
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