COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Michelle Bartsch-Hackley wound up an alternate for the U.S. women’s national volleyball team ahead of the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
One of the last cuts for the team that would ultimately win a bronze medal.
Little question exsisted that Bartsch-Hackley would make the team for the postponed 2021 Tokyo Olympics after she carved out a prominent role in the last four-plus years as an offensive threat for the national team.
The three-time All-American and Illinois Hall of Famer had to wait a bit longer because the COVID-19 pandemic delayed the Tokyo Olympics a full calendar year, but she’ll make her Olympic debut next month in Japan.
The 31-year-old Bartsch-Hackley was one of 12 athletes officially named to the U.S. Olympic team Monday along with fellow former Illinois All-American Jordyn Poulter. A third former Illini, Erin Virtue, has been a full-time national team assistant since 2018.
“I think the team is very different from 2016,” Bartsch-Hackley told The News-Gazette. “I’m really excited to be playing with this group. There’s a lot of young ones on there, including Poulter, and I think we have a ton of potential. I’m really excited to even be involved and just really happy.”
The current U.S. Olympic roster features a pair of three-time Olympians in Jordan Larson and Foluke Akinradewo Gunderson, who won silver medals in 2012 in London. Kim Hill and Kelsey Robinson also return after winning bronze in 2016.
While the makeup of this year’s team — four returning Olympians and eight newcomers — is similar to the 2016 squad, the current roster skews a bit younger. Three-fourths of the athletes on the roster are in their 20s, and the average age of the roster is 25.
“I think some of the pieces are the same, but we’ve put in a lot of work off the court because that was kind of the only thing we were able to do for a long time,” Bartsch-Hackley said of the group going to Tokyo compared to what it might have been a year ago. “We were making those connections and relationships stronger because there’s such a younger presence than there was. I’m proud of this group and how far we’ve come.”
Poulter is the youngest athlete on the roster and will turn 24 during the Olympics.
“There really isn’t a way to put into words how I am feeling,” Poulter said in a statement. “Making an Olympic roster is something that so many people dream of achieving — it is what I have always dreamed of doing — and now it is coming into fruition. I feel so much gratitude to be able to wear the USA flag on my jersey and I am honored to be able to represent our country in Tokyo this summer.”
Bartsch-Hackley and Poulter’s connection was already strong. The two didn’t overlap at Illinois — Bartsch-Hackley graduated in 2011 after helping the Illini reach the NCAA championship match and Poulter in 2018 after guiding Illinois to its most recent Final Four appearance — but their relationship developed before the latter ever played for the Illini.
“I’ve known Poult since she was little,” Bartsch-Hackley said. “She came to camps when I was in college. I’ve always thought she was amazing. I’m really excited for her and for both of us to being playing on the same team. It’s really cool that (former Illinois coach Kevin Hambly) recruited both of us. He must have seen something in both of us. It’s really cool and I’m so happy to be making our first Olympics together.
“She’s had great professional seasons overseas. She’s proven herself day by day. Hard work pays off, and she’s one of the hardest workers. I’m just so proud of her.”
The rest of the U.S. Olympic roster is as Big Ten-heavy as usual. Joining Bartsch-Hackley and Poulter are Nebraska’s Larson, Robinson and Justine Wong-Orantes, Penn State grads Micha Hancock and Haleigh Washington and former Purdue star Annie Drews, who is the daughter of former Danville basketball standout Mike Drews. Jordan Thompson and Chiaka Ogbogu round out the roster.
The six alternates include five former Big Ten standouts in Minnesota’s Tori Dixon, Hannah Tapp and Sarah Wilhite Parson, Wisconsin grad Lauren Carlini and Penn State’s Megan Courtney. The sixth, Kathryn Plummer, also played for Hambly at Stanford.
“Ultimately, we coaches are elated for this Olympic roster selection, and for our program,” U.S. coach Karch Kiraly said in a statement. “Each one of the 12 contributes unique skills and qualities that make her the right person for the job. This collection of special people who are elite volleyball players is poised to make a fierce Olympic run. We can’t wait to watch them ‘Let It Rip’ in Tokyo.
“Our core group of 23 Women’s National Teamers has done amazing work in the last 14 months, setting us up for phenomenal trust, connection, purpose and performance. This roster announcement is a bittersweet moment, as we face a stark reminder that we cannot travel all 23 to Tokyo for battle, though they’ll all be there in our hearts and minds.”
The Olympic debut for both Bartsch-Hackley, Poulter and six of their teammates will be a bit different from what would be considered a typical Olympics. Most notably, international fans will not be allowed to travel to Japan, and there’s only the possibility some Japanese spectators will be allowed into the venues.
“It’s unfortunate our family and friends aren’t allowed to go and we’ll be in a bubble situation, but the support from elsewhere will be even stronger,” Bartsch-Hackley said. “Maybe we’ll get a little more exposure than we normally would. I know Japan will do a great job of hosting us.”