Flora “Flo” Hyman: Volleyball
American Star of the Women’s International Sports Hall of Fame
A bright star burned out early when Flo Hyman collapsed to her death during a professional volleyball match in Japan at age 31. Her friends, family, and fans were distraught over her death and although Flo had nicknamed herself the “old lady” of volleyball, they all believed her life and career were far too premature to come to an end. But sadly, on January 24, 1986, her life and career ended in the same instant.
Though almost certainly on her way to bigger and better things, Hyman accomplished a tremendous amount during her short life and career, becoming the face of American volleyball as it was catapulted from a recreational pastime to the popular college and youth sport it is today. Hyman’s own participation in volleyball started recreationally as she and her older sister, Suzanne, would head to the beach from her hometown of Inglewood, California, to look for some pick-up games and tournaments on the sand. Beach volleyball adds several elements of difficulty to the sport of volleyball since simple athletic moments like running and jumping can turn into tremendous feats in the sand. Needless to say, this start greatly prepared Hyman for the force she would become on the indoor courts.
In high school, Hyman played basketball and ran track and field, but she did not play competitive volleyball until she reached her full height of 6 feet, 5 inches tall at age 17. Her lack of competitive volleyball experience did not seem to affect her abilities and she earned the first female athletic scholarship awarded by the University of Houston in 1974. The three-time All-American (1974-76) and Most Outstanding Collegiate Player (1976) managed to double major in mathematics and physical education, but chose to leave college early to capitalize on her volleyball skills. She had always planned to return to school to graduate when her volleyball career ended. Referring to balancing her volleyball career with her education, she once said, “You can go to school when you’re 60. You’re only young once, and you can only do this once.”1 She unfortunately never had the chance to return to school and graduate; her volleyball career was still blossoming when she died.
Hyman left the University of Houston in 1976 because she saw the great need the national team had for players like herself. After placing fifth and eighth in the 1964 and 1968 Olympic Games, respectively, the U.S. national team did not even qualify for the Olympics in 1972 or 1976; Hyman wanted that to change. With Hyman at the helm, the U.S. team qualified for the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games and was even thought to be the favorite for gold, but like 61 other nations, the United States boycotted the Moscow Games.
Determined to put American women’s volleyball on the international radar, Hyman remained with the team and pushed them for another four years. Together they won a bronze medal at the 1982 World Championships in Peru and a silver medal at the 1983 Pan American Games in Caracas. When the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles arrived, the American team was ready and the Hyman family was excited to watch her represent the United States in their very own hometown.
Suzanne, the eldest of the eight Hyman children, recalled watching her little sister and former teammate, Florie—as she was affectionately known to her large family—lose the gold medal match. “The family was up in the stands, crying,” she said. “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?’”2 The team that had never before medaled in Olympic history earned the silver medal, which is still the highest finish ever for a women’s Olympic indoor volleyball team. The 2008 Beijing Olympics saw a repeat silver medal finish when the American women lost to Brazil in the gold medal match.
After those Summer Games, Hyman moved to Japan to play professionally. While abroad, she realized the United States did not give women’s sports as much respect as other countries did. She often returned home to advocate for increased opportunities and funds for female athletes. She also joined forces with civil rights leader Coretta Scott King, democratic vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro, and astronaut Sally Ride to lobby for the Civil Rights Restoration Act and strengthening of Title IX.
Hyman had planned to play in Japan for two seasons before returning home to give her full attention to broadcasting and coaching American volleyball and continuing her advocacy for equal rights. She had already helped bump up her team Daiei from Japan’s third division to the first division. Yet, it was during her second season in 1986, while playing a match in Matsue City, when she collapsed on the bench after routinely subbing out of a game. Her death was first attributed to a heart attack, but her family asked for an autopsy upon her body’s return to California. The autopsy found that Hyman’s death actually pointed to a disease known as Marfan Syndrome, a connective tissue disorder that can affect many body systems, including the skeleton, eyes, heart and blood vessels, nervous system, skin, and lungs. While Marfan is known to afflict more than 1 in 5,000 people, often individuals with long arms, fingers and toes, Hyman’s diagnosis had gone undetected. The examining doctor found a three-week-old blood clot near her deadly aortic tear that suggested an earlier rip had already begun healing when the fatal rupture occurred in the same area.
Upon the realization that Hyman had a healthy heart, but suffered from an undetected genetic disease, two of her seven remaining siblings went to a Marfan symposium where they were convinced to get tested for the syndrome. The test results of Flo’s brother came back positive and he underwent open-heart surgery to correct the disorder, almost certainly saving his life. Flo Hyman had managed to advocate for the well-being of others even after she passed on.
In 1987, National Girls and Women in Sports Day was established to remember Flo Hyman for her “athletic achievements as well as her philanthropic work to assure equality for women’s sports.”3 While the day has grown to recognize more current sports achievements and draw attention to the continued struggle of gender equality in sports, Flo Hyman is remembered for her positive influence on American civil rights in general and women’s volleyball in particular. This Olympic star still shines bright, just from a greater distance now.
1 Biography of Flo Hyman, “Flo Hyman,” Wikipedia.org, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flo_Hyman, (May 31, 2008, accessed June 18, 2008).
2 George Vecsey, “Sports of The Times; Remembering Flo Hyman,” New York Times, February 5, 1988.
3 Elizabeth M. Verner, “Seeking Women Donors for National Girls and Women in Sports Day,” The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation and Dance (September 1, 1998).
This excerpt was written by Jessica Bartter.