Volleyball's top player aims to be a big smash


July 14, 1992|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Staff Writer

Caren Kemner rolls up the short sleeves of her red, white and blue uniform shirt like some sort of James Dean wannabe. She screams at her teammates, her voice booming through a gymnasium. She glares at her opponents.

But when she soars, above the other players, above the net, she is transformed. Suddenly, there is a look of pure enchantment on her face. Her eyes, glazed over in rage one moment, are suddenly focused. A frozen smile creases her lips. And her clenched right hand, the one that is taped like a prize fighter's, comes hooking down from the sky, sending a white, leather volleyball into a 95-mph dive to the floor.

They call this a kill.

Here, in a moment of rage and beauty, is the picture of volleyball's most dominant women's player. When the United States takes the floor for the women's competition at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain, it is Kemner who is expected to lead the team to its first medal since 1984.

But for a star, especially one who has performed internationally for eight years, Kemner remains a player of contradictions. In a sport where the top Americans are usually brought up on California beaches, Kemner was born and raised in Quincy, Ill., 30 minutes up the Mississippi River from Mark Twain's hometown of Hannibal, Mo. Kemner was once known more for her tantrums than her talents. A self-described athlete with an attitude, she suddenly can switch gears in a conversation and declare that she is, simply, a feminist.

Somehow, the contradictions make sense. A woman who keeps a daily journal, who says without a trace of guile that she wants to "become the best volleyball player ever," is still evolving.

She even can laugh at her lack of fame in the United States. In Hong Kong, kids stop her in shopping malls and ask for autographs. In Beijing, dozens of journalists question her about volleyball tactics. In America, she is asked constantly about the beach.

"It's funny," she said. "America is the country that invented volleyball, that has 350,000 recreational players, and people really don't know about our sport."

Kemner's game is not some day at the beach or a night out at the local Y. International volleyball is like high-speed chess, only the ball comes rumbling through the air like a bullet train. Blink, and you can get hit -- and hurt. The stars resemble basketball players, tall and lean, able to leap at a moment's notice while positioning themselves for spikes that resemble dunks.

And Kemner is the best.

She is 27 years old, a 6-foot-1, 185-pound outside hitter who stands guard on the left side of the U.S. six-player alignment. In a game in which offense and defense are interchangeable, she crushes spikes one moment, dives to the floor the next to retrieve the ball moments before it skips on the court. She serves. She sets. She even prods the officials.

"Caren is a lot like a Michael Jordan," said U.S. coach Terry Liskevych. "She does some stupendous things. In a sport where you're either a hitter, or a blocker, or a passer, or a defender, Caren does everything. If you are the best in one skill, you should be on our team. Caren is the best in every skill."

But, for Kemner, becoming the best wasn't a matter of improving her skills. It was a result of an attitude readjustment, of growing up and of learning how to lead.

"I can be funny, nice and caring," Kemner said. "But I also want to win. I used to be a horrendous loser. I argued all the time. I also came to a point where I shut myself off from everyone. I needed to get away to find myself."

Kemner's story is really the story of a team rebuilding in the wake of triumph, the silver at the 1984 Los Angeles Games. After L.A., the U.S. team was disbanded. The top players went to Europe and Japan to play professionally, the coaches returned to colleges and a training center that was more dream than reality was placed in San Diego.

In spring 1985, Liskevych, a German-born, American-raised coach, was brought in to restart the program. He had no team videotapes, no files and only five players. One of them was

Kemner, a gangly player with a ferocious temper. But, in two years at the University of Arizona, Kemner established herself as one of the country's top young performers, and Liskevych took a chance, figuring he could build his team around Kemner's talents.

"When I first saw Caren, I saw a very good athlete," Liskevych said. "She had potential, which is another way of saying she wasn't a very good player at the time. But she has lived up to potential. And, now, there is pressure on Kemner as she learns to live up to that potential every night."

But Kemner was difficult to deal with. She was hard on herself, and even harder on others. She was a perfectionist who despised mistakes and hated to lose.

She cursed out teammates during practice. She sulked during team meetings. She even distanced herself from her teammates at lunch, preferring to sit alone in a corner.

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