Flo Hyman (1954–1986), acknowledged as the best female volleyball player of her time, was the U.S. face of the sport as it evolved from recreational to highly competitive. "Hyman was known for her awe-inspiring spiking abilities, her equally strong defensive skills, and her personal integrity and charisma," Nancy Foley wrote in Sports Illustrated for Women. Hyman helped lead the United States to a silver medal in the 1984 Summer Olympic Games; less than two years later, while playing professionally in Japan, Hyman collapsed and died at age 31 of the congenital heart disorder Marfan syndrome.
Raised in Inglewood, California
Hyman, who was born on July 29, 1954, grew up in the Los Angeles suburb of Inglewood, California, and graduated from Morningside High School. Her father, George W., was a railroad janitor and her mother, Warrene, owned a café. She played basketball and ran track and field for Morningside High but did not play competitive volleyball until reaching her full height—six-foot-five. She did, however, play in volleyball tournaments at the beach with her older sister.
University of Houston coach Ruth Nelson was impressed with Hyman's play on a club team, and awarded her the first female athletic scholarship at the school; Hyman, having overcome adolescent doubts about her height, became a three-time All-American volleyball player for the Cougars while majoring in mathematics and physical education.
She left college to join the fledgling—and struggling—national team in Colorado. It fared poorly in the 1964 and 1968 Summer Olympic Games, failed to qualify for the Games in 1972 and 1976 and even operated for three months of 1975 without a coach until Polish-born Arie Selinger took over and stabilized the program after succeeding similarly in Israel. Hyman, hesitant at first about Selinger's style of aggressive play, ultimately embraced it. "We refused to disband," Hyman recalled. "As long as we stuck together, we were the national team." Selinger realized Hyman's leadership value. "If Flo plays well, the team follows," Selinger said, according to HickokSports.com.
Hyman helped steer U.S. volleyball to a fifth-place finish at the 1978 world championships after Selinger moved the team to the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The United States qualified for the 1980 Olympics and was even considered a favorite to capture a gold medal, but Hyman and her teammates did not compete as President Jimmy Carter ordered a boycott of the Summer Games in Moscow over the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan in December of 1979. The United States was one of 62 nations to do so.
Generated Worldwide Respect
In a run-up to the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles, Hyman excelled for the Americans in the 1980 and 1982 World Volleyball Championships. In between, she earned the best hitter, or spiker, award at the 1981 World Cup in Tokyo, Japan, which essentially ranked her among the world's six best volleyballers. "I had to learn to be honest with myself," Hyman said, according to Foley. "I had to recognize my pain threshold. When I hit the floor, I have to realize it's not as if I broke a bone. Pushing yourself over the barrier is a habit. I know I can do it and try something else crazy. If you want to win the war, you've got to pay the price."
Bob Beeten, the longtime director of the U.S. Olympic Sports Medicine and Research Center, told Sports Illustrated at the time that the volleyball players were among the strongest female athletes he had ever tested. "Fitter even than the track and field women, with the exception of the distance runners," Beeten said, as quoted by Jerry Crowe in the Los Angeles Times. Hyman drew respect from opponents, media, and other observers worldwide. "As that team became successful and one of the dominant teams in the world, she was the best player on the team. And she was the most recognized," former United States Volleyball Association Clifford McPeak told Crowe. "She was kind at heart, yet incredibly competitive on the court." Robert McG. Thomas, Jr., wrote in the New York Times, "Miss Hyman's spike shot was likened to a Julius Erving slam dunk, and her spin serve was compared to a Fernando Valenzuela screwball."
Silver Medal and Civil Rights
Hyman finally got her chance to compete in the Olympics in 1984, in her hometown. By then, corporate sponsorship and spectator interest was on the rise. She was the oldest female athlete at age 29, and called herself the "old lady" of the team, but impressed many with her power. She had earned the nickname "Clutchman" and could serve at speeds up to 100 miles per hour. "The audience would hold its breath when she rose for a spike," Joan Ackerman-Blount wrote in Sports Illustrated. The United States defeated West Germany, Brazil, and China in Pool B competition, then toppled Peru in a semifinal match. China, however, defeated the Americans in a rematch for the gold medal, taking three of four sets. Still, the silver represented the first medal for U.S. women's volleyball. "The family was up in the stands, crying," Hyman's sister told George Vecsey in the New York Times. "But Florie came by and waved. You could see her smile. She was happy. She had reached her goal. She had played for a gold medal. I thought to myself, if she is happy, why am I crying?"
After the Olympics, Hyman joined civil rights leader Coretta Scott King, Democratic vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro and astronaut Sally Ride in lobbying for the Civil Rights Restoration Act and women's sports causes during the presidential election year. Hyman and Cheryl Miller, a basketball standout at the University of Southern California and later a broadcaster, testified on Capitol Hill in Washington on behalf of strengthening Title IX, the break-through 1972 legislation that prohibited sex discrimination by athletic programs in universities that receive federal funding. "Flo Hyman typifies the new generation of women athletes who emerged in the 1970s and 1980s," said an entry in African American National Biography.
Died During Match in Japan
With professional opportunities limited in the United States, Hyman moved to Japan, where corporate sponsors underwrote teams. She emerged as a star for Daiei, backed by the supermarket chain by that name. In two years, Daiei rose from third division to first division.
She had intended to return to the United States after 1986, but never got the chance. On January 24, 1986, after the third set of a match in Matsue City, about 380 miles northwest of Tokyo, Hyman collapsed on the bench and died at Matsue Red Cross Hospital of heart failure. She had "no measurable pulse" when she arrived, according to the Los Angeles Times, and despite placing Hyman on a respirator and giving her an external massage, emergency personnel could not revive her. Rita Crockett, Hyman's teammate for Daiei as well as the Olympic team, finished the match, unaware of Hyman's grave condition. "It was the third set, and Flo had just come off the court," said Marty Kuehnert, broadcaster, sports marketer and Hyman friend who was living in Tokyo. "She was sitting in the middle of the bench, cheering for her team, and she just keeled over," Kuehnert said of Hyman, according to the Los Angeles Times. "Flo had fainted in the past. Rita was told that Flo had just fainted, so she thought it was OK to continue to finish the match." According to Kuehnert, a team manager summoned Crockett off the bus. "Rita asked, 'Is Flo OK?' and the manager just started crying and shook his head no," Kuehnert said. Crockett told Selinger's wife, Aia, that Hyman had been playing well and nothing had seemed wrong on the court. "There wasn't anything strange about her health before the match," team director Yasuhiro Doi told the Associated Press, according to the Los Angeles Times. "She didn't have any health problems."
"Gone too soon. It's a story we've heard all too much in the general world and the sports world," Tony McLean wrote for the website BlackAthlete.com. "At the time of her death, Flo Hyman was arguably the best volleyball player in the world."
Awareness of Marfan Syndrome
Doctors attributed the death to Marfan syndrome, which caused an aortic rupture. In Hyman's case, it went undetected. According to the National Marfan Association website, others afflicted with the hereditary disease include former U.S. President Abraham Lincoln; Tony Award-winning playwright Jonathan Larson; actor Vincent Schiavelli; and former French President Charles de Gaulle. Despite Hyman's healthy appearance, the excessive stress of competitive sports had damaged her aorta. Hyman's brother, one of seven siblings she left, underwent treatment and survived, thanks to early detection.
Her death brought attention to a disease that was little known in the mid-1980s. About 20 years later, however, advocates still cited a need to promote awareness. According to Cheryl Wittenauer of the Associated Press, about 50,000 Americans had Marfan syndrome in 2005, and an additional 200,000 have related connective-tissue disorders. "Persons with Marfan syndrome typically are tall, thin, and lanky with long, thin fingers and toes," Wittenauer wrote. According to cardiologist Alan Braverman, director of the Marfan Syndrome Clinic in St. Louis, many victims have a curved spine or abnormal chest wall and a long, narrow face with deep eyes. "We want to diagnose and enhance awareness that a lifesaving treatment is available," Braverman said in Wittenauer's article.
Award Recognizes Hyman Legacy
The Women's Sports Foundation in 1987 established the annual Flo Hyman Award, which it announced on National Girls and Women in Sports Day "to a female athlete who captures Hyman's dignity, spirit and commitment to excellence," the foundation said on its website. Recipients have included Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert, and Monica Seles (tennis), Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Evelyn Ashford (track and field), Bonnie Blair and Kristi Yamaguchi (ice skating) and Lisa Leslie (basketball). "Hyman's inspirational life and untimely death spurred a women's sports movement in the United States to create new opportunities for women and girls in athletics, all in Hyman's name," the foundation said in a profile of Hyman on its web site. In that profile, Crockett said: "There has been nobody even to compare to her. Even to this day I've never seen anyone better," and Arie Selinger called her "The Goddess of Volleyball."
"To be true to one's self is the ultimate test in life," the foundation quoted Hyman as saying. "To have the courage and sensitivity to follow your hidden dreams and stand tall against the odds that are bound to fall in your path. Life is too short and precious to be dealt with in any other fashion. This thought I hold dear to my heart, and I always try to be true to myself and others that I encounter along the way."
"You can attribute the growth of volleyball in this country to a lot of things, but you've got to have stars. You've got to have models at the top. And people all over this country know who Flo Hyman is and grow up wanting to be like her," McPeak told the Los Angeles Times. "She meant a lot to the sport of volleyball, not only in the United States, but all over the world. She was a real force in the growth of the sport in this country."
Associated Press Newswires, August 3, 2005.
Los Angeles Times, January 25, 1986.
New York Times, January 25, 1986.
African American National Biography, Flo Hyman profile, http://www.fas.harvard.edu/∼aanb/SHTML/sampleEntries.shtml#Sample05 (December 26, 2005).
Biography Resource Center, Flo Hyman profile, http://galenet.galegroup.com (December 16, 2005).
"Flora (Flo) Hyman, Volleyball," Sports Illustrated for Women, http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/siforwomen/top_100/69/ (November 22, 2005).
HickokSports.com, Flo Hyman profile, http://www.hickoksports.com/biograph/hymanflo.shtml (November 22, 2005).
"Inspiration and Courage: A Look at the Life of Flo Hyman," Women's Sports Foundation Web site, http://www.womenssportsfoundation.org/cgi-bin/iowa/athletes/article.html?record=70 (December 26, 2005).
National Marfan Foundation Web site, http://www.marfan.org/nmf/index.jsp (December 26, 2005).
"Volleyball Pioneer Flo Hyman," Black Athlete.com, March 17, 2004, http://www.blackathlete.com/Volleyball/index.shtml (November 22, 2005).