The letter and the picture . . . Arie Selinger looks at both of them with disbelief. His volleyball protege, America's finest woman player, Flo Hyman, wrote the letter -- an unfinished letter -- to him the morning of her shocking death Jan. 24 during a game in Japan. The picture, which appeared in a Japanese newspaper, "was taken five minutes before she died," said Selinger, who coached the 1984 U.S. women's Olympic volleyball team. "She's out there with her hands up, smiling, powerful, an awesome human being."
Then she died. "It happened so unexpectedly," said Selinger. "It's a terrible shock. Unbelievable, at this time in life."
To Selinger and his wife, the powerful spiker seemed like "our daughter." For years they had kept a room in their house for her.
The 31-year-old, 6-foot-5 Hyman, who led the Olympic team to a silver medal in Los Angeles, was playing for Daiei in a Japanese women's match in Matsue City, about 380 miles west of Tokyo. After a player change, she took a seat on the bench -- "The last thing she said, she was cheering somebody on," said Selinger -- and collapsed. She was carried from the gymnasium on a stretcher, taken by ambulance to a hospital and shortly after arrival was pronounced dead, of heart failure.
A Daiei spokesman told reporters: "There wasn't anything strange about her health before the match. She didn't have any health problems."
In what apparently were unrelated incidents, Hyman did have fainting spells -- two in the 1980s before the Olympics that Selinger could recall. They happened during long opening ceremonies of major events held in high temperatures. "We knew she was sensitive to heat," said Selinger, who added that Hyman was "checked out" afterward by doctors who found "everything was okay."
With her performance in the Olympics, Hyman established herself as a clearly superior performer, one of America's all-time greatest women athletes. But although her fame may yet grow, she had dropped in visibility in this country since the Olympics. For many women athletes, Olympic fame can be meteoric. "Once you've played with the national team," said Selinger, "there's no place to go."
With the major exceptions of golf and tennis, few women's professional leagues exist. Quickly, a great woman athlete with no way to turn pro can fade from sight. For one, Lynette Woodard, star of the gold-medal-winning U.S. women's Olympic basketball team, has latched onto an alternative, becoming the first woman Harlem Globetrotter. In addition, four members of the U.S. Olympic women's volleyball team went to Japan to play. There, as Selinger put it, Hyman became a "legend."
Admired and loved, she had led the Daiei team to an improvement that duplicated her dynamic role with the U.S. women's Olympic volleyball program from 1975 to its silver-medal effort in 1984. "She took Daiei from the third division to the first division," said Selinger. "She was always concerned with the team. This was going to be her last season, but she was planning on going back next year to help coach.
"The most amazing thing, I got a letter from her written on the day of her death. She wrote it at 9:50 in the morning, in the hotel, waiting for the match. It was a big match, with Hitachi, which had won 88 consecutive matches. The week before, Daiei had lost to Hitachi. After that, Flo organized a program for her team. She studied video. She reorganized the team and helped coach it with the approval of the coach. In the letter, she says she's so anxious to go play it, knowing that Daiei is going to win it. She says, 'I'm feeling so proud, so positive, so strong. I can't wait . . .
" 'I look at them (her teammates) and they seem calm and confident. We feel like a team again.'
"That's Flo. That's Flo. She was a team player."
The manager of the team gave Selinger the letter when Hyman's body was brought to Los Angeles. "She did play like that, and they won the match," said Selinger. "And that kind of reflects Flo's spirit."
Surely, it's a spirit that will endure among those who knew her -- and among those who didn't, should her story become better known.
In 1974, she made the U.S national team, which was stuggling greatly. The United States had failed to qualify for the '72 Games in women's volleyball. By 1975, the national team was without a coach and was barely holding together.
"We refused to disband," Hyman once said of her early teammates. "As long as we stuck together, we were the national team. We stayed together three months without a coach. Finally, they said, 'Okay, these girls aren't going to leave, so we'd better give them a coach.'
"We wanted to go somewhere, but we didn't know how to get there. Arie took us there."
Selinger was born in Poland in 1937, and in May 1945 escaped with his mother from the Nazis. He grew up in Israel, played volleyball and became coach of the Israeli women's national team. He moved to the United States in 1969. While pursuing a doctorate at the University of Illinois, he saw the 18-year-old Hyman in an exhibition match with the U.S. national team in Chicago.
He was struck by her height and aggressiveness. When he became coach of the national team and reported to its Pasadena, Tex., camp, he believed Hyman would be a future star. Though known for his demanding training methods, he found believers among his players -- Hyman was one of seven who stuck with the program even after the United States boycotted the '80 Olympics. She had been playing since 10th grade.
At Morningside High in Inglewood, Calif., she ran track and played some basketball but was not happy with her ability, or her height. (As early as sixth grade, she had stood 6-1.) A teacher invited her to play volleyball. When she learned it was an Olympic sport, she took it seriously, earning a scholarship to the University of Houston and further developing her game of overpowering offense and intimidating defense. Her reputation spread. The game's fiercest hitter, she was regarded with awe. Rita Crockett, an Olympian and teammate in Japan, once said of the first time she saw Hyman play, "My first reaction was 'Duck!' "
In 1978, Selinger moved the team to the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. By then, Hyman had finished three years of math and physical education at Houston and said of the move to Colorado: "You can go to school when you're 60. You're only young once and you can only do this once."
She had learned determination from her mother, who died several years ago, and her father, a former railroad steward who once worked the fields in the segregated South of the 1920s. They taught her -- one of six daughters and two sons -- to ignore jeers about her color and height. Once she had come to terms with her height, she walked with her head up and played the game of volleyball with an obvious dignity, too.
Selinger said that because of her height she had to work many years to become proficient on defense -- in fact, she came to be the team's No. 1 defensive player, just as she was the offensive leader. In the little spare time she had -- even when she had a two-week vacation, she'd return to practice after just a week -- she liked to read gothic tales and paint. She hoped to be a volleyball coach and do what she could to spread interest in the sport. Still single, she thought one day she'd get married, said Selinger, "that everything happens in due course." She once said of volleyball, "I'm in this because I love the sport and I love my team."
She also said: "I have no fears and no insecurities about the future."
Friday, she was buried in Inglewood after a service attended by more than 500 friends. Relatives thanked a delegation from Japan for the special way she had been treated there. The eulogy was given by an uncle, Rev. J.A. Barber, who said that "years ago" Hyman had requested he speak "if anything happened to her." She had heard him speak at a service. "I told her, 'You're too young to be talking about death.' "
Said Selinger earlier in the week, "She belonged to the whole team. She belonged to everybody."