Interview: Caren Kemner (Exclusive to Volleypics.com)

1. Which was your first match with the national team?

Caren KemnerMy first match with the USA National Team was in the latter part of 1985 against a Korean Club team from Seoul. Don’t really trust my memory much but I believe we won 1 match or maybe 2 out of a 5 match series. Being that my first international match, it was comparable to watching hummingbirds, you know how they [the Korean players] were here one minute and gone the next. Needless to say I could only compare this to college volleyball at the time. I was named to the National Team in early 1985 at an open tryout in Colorado Springs. Looking back it was like a “cattle call.” There were folks there who never even played volleyball and were trying out…my favorite, was an aerobics instructor who thought it would look good on her resume.

Did you ever play with the junior national team? Or did you go straight to the adult team?

I never played for the junior teams, never even played club volleyball, I was not about to give up my summer softball program. (Softball was my true first love, I would have played that in the Olympics had it been an Olympic sport back then.)

Did you sub in for someone?

I never subbed in for a player until returning to the National Team in 1995… boy that was fun!

2. Most of the USA silver-medallists from Los Angeles retired after 1984. When you made the adult team what was the energy like among the new generation of players (yourself, Masakayan, Rock, the Odens, Kirby, etc.)? Was there pressure to play up to the level of your predecessors?

Of course now I know what it feels like, having experienced the emotional roller coaster ride first-hand of being “replaced” by a new kid on the block. It is a very confusing time. It’s not that you don’t want the new team to do well, but you don’t! You in some way want to hold on and believe that what you did was the best and can never be surpassed. When I first joined the National Team, I know for a fact that is how some of the previous players felt… I did not understand that at the time because I idolized them, I was hoping someday to be maybe as good as them. Of course back then I also think I got a little extra steam rolling from them because I was given Flo Hyman’s number to wear. I didn’t really want that number because it was Flo’s… then when she died I felt like I was wearing a bull’s eye on me. I felt that Flo’s number should have been retired as well. But now, honestly, I am glad that I wore her number and I think Flo would have been happy to know that I did that number proud and strangely enough I thought about her many times throughout my career and the doors that she and the many other players ahead of me opened.

Going back to your original question about the next group of athletes: in 1989, when I was playing professionally in Milan, at the end of every year there was a match between the Italian All Stars and the Foreigners. Well here I was on the train down to Rome and I was sitting next to Rita Crockett. I was afraid that this was going to be the longest trip! I wanted to speak with her because I knew that there was just something that she did not like about me. (That’s fine there are a lot of things I don’t like about myself!) Finally she took her headset off and we ended up talking the whole trip about this one subject. To be honest even then I understood to an extent…those ladies busted their asses for years, and basically were let go [from the team]. I would have some issues too. Oops, I do!

3. In the 1986 World Championships in Czechoslovakia, the USA had a team that was in very good physical shape. Despite falling short of victory by a couple of points, the match was athletic and very explosive. What are your memories of that match?

I don’t remember much about those World Championships but I do remember playing East Germany. They were one of the top ranked teams in the world back then.

4. What was your match with China like at those world championships? What did you think of the Chinese team back then?

I’ll tell you what I remember about my first World Championships: gender testing. There was a lot of talk about a player from South Korea who suddenly did not play anymore…that is a lot for a kid from Illinois…gender testing?

5. One year after that, the USA was determined not to let Peru take the Japan Cup as an undefeated champion. The last match against Peru was very entertaining and you almost pulled off your promise. Was there a sort of continental rivalry developing with the Peruvian team in the ‘80s? What did you think of them?

Peru was awesome. They were the Mighty Mice that could and did! I am not sure that the rivalry was really about one specific team, I think we where improving and no one really wanted to lose to the new kids on the block. Although in the late 80s and early 90s it seemed that a lot of the big matches came right down to Peru and the US. In later years, I had a chance to get to know some of the [Peruvian] players. They were a lot of fun to run into off the court and laugh with.

6. In Seoul ‘88 the USA played several close matches. Again the match with Peru was an interesting one to watch; what happened in that match? Did Peru awaken or did the USA get a bit nervous about pulling an upset?

I think in ‘88 Peru turned it up a notch, and I am sure that we were showing our inexperience. Back then so many of the teams from the ‘84 Olympics had retained their players and had tremendous amounts of experience. The only person on our team who could even grasp this was Laurel Kessel, our setter, and she was from the team that didn’t go to the ’80 Olympics because of the boycott.

7. What was the most important thing that the team learned in Seoul?

So many things, both good and bad. I thought it was great to experience the Olympic movement. Was I going to remain with the team? I wasn’t sure. Let’s just say there was a lot of crap flowing and I seemed to be in the direction of the flow.

8. At the ’90 World Championships in China you got to play against Lang Ping. What was that like? We spectators saw how amazing she was to watch, but what did it feel like to be her opponent on the court? What do you think of her legacy to the sport, both as a player back then and as a coach more recently with China and the USA?

I am not sure I truly understood the whole Lang Ping thing then, that whole team was amazing…like machines. I just wanted to play well and make a match out of it. [For that semifinal] the arena was absolutely filled to the ceiling with probably another thousand people or so outside trying to get in. That match was televised all over China… they would have been smarter to watch Pandas mating because I think the match was over within about 45 minutes. Years later I was honored to get to know Lang Ping a little better. I pushed for her to get the coaching job when I was on the panel for hiring the new coach for 2000. I would have stayed playing as a libero, and would have wanted to play a lot longer for “Jenny”.

9. The third place finish the USA obtained at the ’90 Worlds was a very welcome surprise, but didn’t receive much coverage in the US? What does the US public need to get more interested in volleyball?

Of course the USA did not say anything about our Bronze…but people in the volleyball world got a sense then that perhaps the US was coming into its own. The world of sports in the United States is a tough nut to crack… men have to watch it, and someone better have a lot of money to put behind it. Remember the United States kind of only cares about most Olympic sports once every four years. You are either a hero or dead in the water. And Winter Olympics have an even tougher time of it.

10. By the way, what was it like beating Cuba for that third place at the World championships? What sort of relationship did you have with Mireya or the Cubans in general?

Cuba…I guess I am addicted to pain. I always enjoy playing the best teams. I felt not only the challenge, but I really learned a lot by playing against the likes of Mireya and [Magaly] Carvajal. They made me better! It was great to beat them, especially when I heard later that other countries that were at the World Championships were betting we would lose in three. I do remember the first 8 points…They were like explosions, hell I think we over-passed the first 6 serves! What was the turnaround I am not sure. That would sure be one of those fun matches to watch on video. That is probably the only match against Cuba that you will ever hear me say “let’s watch that again!”

11. In order to go to Barcelona you first had to qualify at the ’91 World Cup. I read Greg Giovanazzi’s diary in Volleyball Magazine in which he details the tension that the team went through match by match leading up to the defining moment: again, a match against Peru! How was that final match? What do you remember most about your efforts to qualify for the Olympics?

The tension in that locker room for everyone (staff included) was crazy strange before the match with Peru. I am not sure how many players on this team were even around for years preceding this match to know about how many times we had to play Peru at pivotal moments. Peru was the team that could make things happen with one play and suddenly have control of the match. It was a great match… I would have liked to win in three but things happen for a reason. That match had to do with more emotional growth for us than anything else, which I think, had a lot to do with the success that came after.

12. In Peru, we suffered that loss almost as much as the ’88 final because our best player, Gaby, was in her prime and playing her best game and she could’ve had a great Olympic experience. Did you ever meet her, talk to her?

I have been fortunate to meet and speak with Gaby. A lot of time playing professional overseas you kind of seek out folks who have been around with you on the international circuit. When I wasn’t on the court I was kind of a goofball. Many times my own teammates would get angry at me for speaking to other players. They could not understand how a person could be friendly and polite with someone you go to battle against. I understand…but I always felt that I was much more than just a volleyball player. Heck, many of the folks I saw during those 18 years were around a lot longer than players on my own team. Besides, life is too short…I have great memories of many different places in the world as well as the people who live there.

13. By the way, tell me about the ’91 All-Star Gala Match against the Soviets. How was it playing alongside Mireya, Magaly Carvajal, Gaby, Rosa García, Li Yueming, Ana Moser, Kumi Nakada, etc.? How did you all communicate? Was the camaraderie good? Did you have fun?

All-Star matches were a BLAST. All I did was pass, cover and play defense. Mireya, Magaly used to joke around… they would say, “You pass, we hit.” Needless to say you don’t have to tell me twice. As always I just filled in any gaps. What can you say about setting when you have that talented group of ladies swinging for you… I would have to beg for a back row set, and even then everyone thought it was for them! Language was never really an issue…I just went along for the ride. I truly enjoyed playing with the All-Stars.

14. Barcelona showed a very balanced Team USA. Why were you shifted to play as outside hitter? Was it because Paula had returned? Hadn’t she played outside hitter at the ’86 Worlds?

I think in ‘92 there were a couple of things that happened that caused a shift in the line up. We all knew that Paula and I had to be on the court at the same time. Our middle was pretty solid with Kim and Elaina Oden, so moving Paula there made no sense. Paula was trained as a middle from the ‘84 days, she could play anywhere too, but her approach was classically a little short/middle or right side. Tee Sanders and Tara Battle where the lefts then and the staff felt that if Paula went right-side it would be logical to put me on the left to get more swings at the ball if we got in trouble. I hated giving up the right side… I had it dialled in, but in the end I am glad that I had the ability to go just about anywhere and put up a good fight.

15. Tell me about the opening match against Japan in Barcelona. Did Lori really get so sick that she couldn’t finish the match?

I am not sure how sick Lori got…we both had a difficult time playing in really hot and humid arenas.

How many days before had you arrived to Spain?

I personally arrived in Spain about 4 days before the team. I attended the FIVB Congress to receive the award for the FIVB Best Player in the World.

What did you think of Motoko Ohbayashi, the Japanese lefty? Was she really a player that made a difference for her team? What was the challenge about playing against her?

The match against Japan as always was difficult. You just never knew what the Japanese team was capable of and that could frustrate you. Ohbayashi is probably to this day the best hitter they ever had, but oddly enough, if you watch her emotions, she controlled that team but not playing so “Japanese.” I am not sure if that makes sense but it was one of the little things that I noticed about her. When I played matches I watched everything good about players…Their walk, talk, laugh, those are all telling signs. Then if you know a player’s tendency you put the two together, and you have a damn good chance of knowing what they are going to do next, either as an individual or as a team.

16. So you barely lost to Japan, you beat Spain easily, and then you faced the former USSR (the CIS). What was that match like? How did it feel to beat them?

The match against Russia was a first in many ways:

A. it was the first time the US beat Russia in an Olympics.

B. That match we got to a point of playing beyond what we had done before.

For me personally I loved playing against Russia, Cuba, and Brazil, because in a lot of ways we played pretty similar styles of ball. But you always had to kick it up a notch whether it meant physically, emotionally, or intellectually. After that match Greg [Giovanazzi] came up to me and said that I made the people around me play better. I’m not really sure how but I did feel at every moment of the match that we had it won even when we were behind in the score, kind of like that fourth game against China in ‘96 before I got subbed out. I knew that if we got them to a fifth game we would beat them. I wish I would have gotten the chance to see that through.

Did you notice if the CIS team played any differently since they were after all a team with no real “country” or flag?

I don’t think those women from Russia really felt they were without a country so to say, they were there to win, for some people it is a matter of life!

17. Apart from what I read in Volleyball Magazine about the semifinal against Cuba and how the bad passing forced Lori to set outside all the time, what was it that cost the USA the match? Has that been the most painful loss of your career? How did you get over it?

I do know that the passing was a little suspect, but I think that Lori felt if we were going to go down it was going to be on my shoulders. By no means out of spite… I had been there many times before. I just wish we could have opened the net up a little by getting the ball to Paula or Elaina. That match ranks right up there with the China match in ‘96, and to be honest I am not sure where I am in recovering from losing those.

18. Was beating Brazil for the bronze the best way to recover from the defeat to Cuba?

Once again, Brazil was a team that I had pretty much figured out. Talking about TALENT. Brazil is one of, if not THE most, athletic team out there. I understood that it was their emotions which were a read for me. Ana Moser and I are, I would say, very good friends. She has vacationed with me as well as other Brazilian teammates at my home in San Diego. Unfortunately, I told Ana my “tell” for the Brazilians and she passed that on, in the future they were not as fiery. It must have been the caipirinhas that made me tell.

What does it feel like to stand on an Olympic podium and be known forever as an Olympic medallist?

The podium is where you strive to be, a gold is what you strive for, if not, why bother. I wish I could do it again but hear my national anthem.

19. This was the USA’s second consecutive major bronze in two years. Do you think it was the best period under Terry’s coaching? Or was it winning the Grand Prix in 1995? What did Terry bring to the team with his coaching style? How did you see his coaching evolve through the years when you played on the team?

This is a tough one to answer… I believe that ‘91-‘92 was perhaps the opening of the door. Sometimes you just need to see what is on the other side and feel how close you are to being on the other side…the side when you’re truly a team to be dealt with. I think our overall best volleyball was played in 1995 and there was no doubt that ‘96 was to be a continuation of all those previous years.

20. I saw a Japan versus USA match at the Japan Super Four right after Barcelona in which the hosts defeated the USA in three sets. What is it about the Japanese game that surprises teams so much? Is it hard to adjust to the quicker games of Asian teams? Do you miss that old-style Asian way of playing in modern day volleyball?

NO, I do not miss the Asian way of volleyball. I feel strongly that there are many wonderful parts of the game that should be incorporated with a larger, more powerful game. I think the USA and Brazil were in that space somewhere between the Eastern Bloc style and Cuba’s style. We are both tall strong and yet quick and agile. I kind of remember that match…but all I can ever tell you is that there is a deep seated tension (nice way of putting it) between the two teams [Japan and the USA] that probably goes back well into the ‘80s.

21. Why were you absent from the team from 1993 to 1995?

From ‘93-‘95 I played professionally in Brazil and Japan, as well as just taking a mental break from the National Team.

22. What made you decide to come back to the national team in 1995? What made Paula come back? What do you think about her career and how did she manage to keep playing for so long?

Paula is not only just an awesome person, but I can tell you that people laughed at our friendship, because everyone pretty much knew how different we were as individuals. But we really came to not only understanding each other’s personalities but we just became much better on the court. Even though on the court we went about our games very differently, it is as if we kind of knew what the other was thinking and worked from there. Paula and I have played for a lot of years in very different times, and yet because of our travels together there weren’t too many teams that, when we got on the court together, we didn’t know how to manage.

23. By the way, I read that both you and Paula played professionally in Japan. Tell me about your earthquake experience in Kobe!

I was in a flight back to the States for knee surgery and a blown ankle when the earthquake hit. When I landed in San Diego only then did I know that an earthquake devastated Kobe and Osaka. The center of that earthquake was only a few miles from our homes, and only because the force went toward Osaka I think is why Kobe was spared. I went back a few months later for the end of the season and there where aftershocks constantly.

24. When you returned in ’95 for the Grand Prix Terry would sub you or Paula in during crucial moments to improve “ball control”. Were you happy with this role? What went right for the USA that year? How did it feel to win a major international tournament (for the first time) against the world’s best teams?

I can tell you I hate being a sub…but Paula and I got the point that this was just how it was going to be and so we dealt with it. I truly feel the beauty of this situation goes back to what I mentioned before about Paula and I: we could play any position needed and those folks on the floor felt safe knowing that when we came in we would just take care of business. This allowed them to breathe and just have a little more fun, perhaps it even removed some of the pressure. After all we knew most of the teams we played against like the back of our hand, and coming off the bench we could relay not the things that were taking place in the match, but perhaps expressed them in a way to help turn things around.

25. Why was it hard to sustain that level at the ’96 Olympics? Did nerves play a factor being the home team? Were expectations too high? The China match in pool play was crucial. You entered at key moments and you fired up the crowd to raise the momentum for the team and it worked! How do you manage to work the crowd?

‘96 Olympics. Some of the best and worst memories. This team was ready beyond belief. No pressure, just living the moment. I have some very direct feelings as to what happened in ‘96 but I think those are better served under wraps. Moving the mountain maybe, raising the dead is what it felt more like. The match against China… I knew when I went on the court and we started a comeback that we would have China going in a fifth game. I just felt it in my heart, and that is what devastated me the most. Why? When? Only coaches can answer, but I can tell you that in all of my years those where the most fun 10 or so points that I ever played. I think I was able to sell what I was feeling in my heart to the other players on the court by just “bringing it”, followed with a joke and smile. Wanting to get the crowd into it was just as natural as asking someone to dance with you when your favorite song comes on. They wanted to dance, they were just waiting for a good song and someone to ask them.

26. What was different (or not) about this new Chinese team? They seemed happier playing than the US players; how did they manage to squeak that win over the US?

The Chinese players off the court are actually pretty funny and down to earth. Even in years past (perhaps beyond the coaches’ watch) there were moments of just being with people that you respected that gave you a small understanding of them off the court. I have got some money on “Jenny” Lang Ping. She had been living and coaching abroad for years leading up to taking that coaching position for China, and Jenny probably gave those players a space to enjoy being that good.

What did you feel when you got subbed out?

I am not sure to this day what happened in the moments after being subbed out…if I was angry I hope I didn’t show it for the team’s sake. You may have to ask around as to why that went down the way it did.
Was Liley that important to have back on the court at that crucial moment?
Tammy came right back in and did her job…never skipping a beat, in hindsight perhaps it just let the air out of the gym with not just the players questioning why but everyone who was watching.

27. Things played themselves bizarrely on the other pool. No one expected Cuba to lose two matches and come in third and then play the USA in the quarterfinals. Cuba bulldozed through that match, but you managed to put on the brakes on them for a while. What was it like playing Cuba at the height of their dominance?

I have always loved playing Cuba, it was like two heavyweight boxers in a street fight. Mireya, Magaly, as well as the coaching staff, are just the best people, I miss them. We always challenged each other…besides the obvious match between 6 vs. 6 for me there were other little battles: getting past Magaly’s block, and just digging lips on Mireya’s spikes. They were awesome to watch but way more fun to play against. I am glad that at one time we (USA) were good enough to go head to head with them.

What about the controversy over their sportsmanship (or lack thereof)?

They just played straightforward and waited to see if you could stop the train. When you have that many ball bangers on the court…to complicate it would have been suicide for them.

28. What did you tell Mireya to tell Raisa O’Farrill when she roofed you and raised her fist at you in the quarterfinal?

Awh…the controversy. I remember getting the lights blocked out of me and as I turned to walk away. I just heard a scream that went right through my skin and when I turned around O’Farrill looked as if she just wanted to go for it right then. You know what…B-LL SH-T; I’ve played this game too darn long, too hard, and with too much respect to be chanted like that. If she had said one more thing I may have gone under that net! Of course later I realized there was a TV microphone right there…and let’s just say I used a couple of choice words. Mireya and Magaly pretty much came over to me and said, “Caren we got it!” I just wasn’t going to take that…I have never treated any player in 15 years without respect on the court or off the court for that matter.

Did you see or read about the famous “Atlanta Brawls” between Cuba and Brazil?

I did not see what took place in the Brazil match…but both of those teams were due! That Olympics had probably the best pool teams ever and there was tension and attitude adrift.

29. According to what you wrote in the Volleypics Fan Forum, it sounds like the loss against Cuba in Atlanta was worse than the one in Barcelona. Why was this one more painful? Was there something good that you gathered from actually returning to the national team and having another intense Olympic experience? After playing in many Olympics, did the pressure of winning increase with each one?

I am not sure if the pressure increased with each Olympics…but we were a damn good team and for the first time I was really enjoying the ladies that I played with. I waited 12 years to interact with teammates as good as them. I was going to fight for them. I think in years past at times I felt like I was on a desert island, not knowing who I could really trust in the organization. In ‘96 I trusted those ladies, without question, and funny enough I think they got to know me a little bit…and had some good laughs! In ‘96 it wasn’t so much the loss to Cuba that crushed me, it was 14 years of busting my ass and having it come down to what I thought and still do as bad decisions that brought everything to a screaming halt.

30. If you have a formula for getting over painful losses, what advice would you give someone who still can’t get over one? How does one change perspectives in order to convert a loss into a feeling of achievement and accomplishment?

I have thought a lot about getting over that pain. Beers, Tears and Mirrors. I drank a lot…I cried even more, and I kept looking in a mirror hoping that someday I would see me again. I am not sure a person can ever get over it…I have not! But I have managed to find ME again and GET THROUGH it. I think that an even harder part is getting on with phase 2 of my life. When you where the best in the world everything else seems to only feel like failure. I hold tight knowing that for a brief time in this life I did something very few have, and the core of that person is the same person today.

31. When did you decide to retire from the team?

Having the Olympics in Atlanta in ‘96 meant so much. I wanted my family to have the opportunity to experience my life first hand. It also gave me a window to say good-bye with my head up and celebrate everyone who had cheered and cried right along with me. When we finished the final match and I took my jersey off and threw it to the crowd…it just felt right. I was just Caren standing there… NO UNIFORM, just me!

32. In hindsight, what are the best things that you achieved, obtained, or gathered from your volleyball career? What made Caren Kemner stand out from all the other players? What is your legacy (or what would you want it to be)?

I am not sure about this whole legacy thing, kind of a scary thought. I take with me the opportunity to see the world and meet extraordinary people when life was a little more, shall I say, PEACEFUL. I hope that those who followed my career saw a great athlete with even a greater heart. What made me stand out from others; perhaps you all can tell me that.

33. What’s the most important thing for an athlete to have or do in his/her post-athletic life?

Post athletic life…it is like a second hell. “I’ve lost my MOJO.” I don’t have an answer for this because no matter what, I am still struggling to exist in my new skin!

Caren, on behalf on Volleypics.com thank you so much for a an interview which has given us an insight into you inner feelings with great highs and lows. . For a really honest look at a great Athlete’s life.

Thanks Seb and Anna for helping with the questions.
Eire.