CHAMPAIGN — Michelle Bartsch-Hackley was in the middle of a workout when she found out she was going to become a new inductee into the Illinois Athletics Hall of Fame in September.
That workout was in her new home gym — also known as her basement. Bartsch-Hackley’s husband, Corbin, had built her a squat rack from scratch and set up their basement so she could continue to work out and maintain her strength.
It might not be ideal — and Bartsch-Hackley doesn’t have access to a gym to keep her volleyball skills sharp — but it was necessary after she and Corbin returned to the U.S. from Turkey in March amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It was really nice to receive good news for sure,” Bartsch-Hackley said about becoming one of the newest members of the Illini Hall of Fame. “I was just a little speechless. I feel like I’m pretty young to get this award, but I’ve had a long volleyball career. I’m grateful for the award and for what Illinois volleyball has really given me.”
What Illinois volleyball gave Bartsch-Hackley was the foundation for what’s turned into a lengthy professional career. A three-time All-American with the Illini, Bartsch-Hackley was an All-Big Ten selection in 2010 and 2011. She helped lead Illinois to the Sweet 16 in 2008, 2009 and 2010 and reach the national championship match in 2011.
That successful run started with Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors in 2008. Even with a position switch from middle blocker to opposite (where she’d never played) and an unfamiliar feeling.
“I had no idea what kind of work went in to being a student-athlete — let alone compete in the Big Ten or anything of that sort,” Bartsch-Hackley said. “I think I was lucky to have really great teammates to help me through it. I think really at that time in my mind I was like, ‘Just work hard, and we’ll get through it one practice and one game at a time.’ I think I was just really overwhelmed my first year, but I’m glad it ended up working out.
“I just feel like I’ve never really had it figured out. Every year is a new challenge and new position or whatever that is. I think when you get comfortable as an athlete and feel like you’ve got things figured out, then maybe you’re in trouble a little bit.”
Bartsch-Hackley figured it out enough year by year to play in five different countries the past nine years and earn a prominent role for the U.S. Women’s National Team. The 30-year-old Bartsch-Hackley was playing for Vak¿fbank Spor Kulübü in Istanbul when the pandemic hit.
“The day that we got information our league would be postponed was also the day they announced the Level 4 travel advisory and pretty much highly suggested every American citizen come back to the country or be prepared to be stuck in that country for weeks or months or whatever it may be,” Bartsch-Hackley said. “With that much uncertainty, it was definitely really scary. I had my husband with me, which was really helpful. I was lucky to be playing for a club that was really understanding and didn’t give me that many problems trying to leave. I ended up having to break my contract to come home, but since we’ve come, the team in Turkey hasn’t been able to practice either. They’re doing the exact same thing I’m doing here at home. It just feels nice to be home and a little more comfortable.”
Being home is different for Bartsch-Hackley. Between her professional club seasons in Puerto Rico, Germany, Italy, China and Turkey and summers with Team USA, Bartsch-Hackley said she hadn’t been home for more than two consecutive weeks in the past nine years.
“This is the longest I’ve been in my house since we bought it,” she said. “It’s different — and I don’t like the circumstances around the world — but it’s also nice to be home and try to adjust to this lifestyle at this point.”
Bartsch-Hackley parlayed success at the club level internationally into a role with the U.S. Women’s National Team. She was a late addition to the squad during the 2016 Olympic cycle, but helped the U.S. win a silver medal at the FIVB World Grand Prix in 2016 before falling just short of a spot on the Olympic team.
“I think normally volleyball players around the world hit their peak around 27, 28, 29,” Bartsch-Hackley said. Her breakout in 2016 came when she was 25.
“I think that just comes with experience as well,” she continued. “That means you’re four or five years out of college at that point. You don’t have to also go to school and balance all these things. It really becomes a job, and that’s all you’re doing all year round. I think it would be really hard to not improve and not hit your stride after college.”
While Bartsch-Hackley’s breakout started in 2016, the 6-foot-3 outside hitter has reached even further heights in the past three-plus years. Bartsch-Hackley helped Team USA claim gold at the 2017 Pan American Cup and two more in back-to-back FIVB Volleyball Nations League finals in 2018 (where she was MVP) and 2019. She also helped the U.S. qualify for the now postponed Tokyo Olympics.
The forced time at home has provided Bartsch-Hackley some perspective on her career. The forced end to her season and the postponement of the Olympics was tough, but the former Illini is trying to maintain a positive attitude.
“It’s hard being told by the government and the world that your job is not essential,” Bartsch-Hackley said. “But sports provides a lot of entertainment and a lot of relief to the public. I know people around the world have been missing sports a lot, and so have we as athletes.”