COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (July 29, 2016) – When Michelle Schiffler (Lake Wales, Florida) joined the U.S. Women’s Sitting Volleyball Team in 2009, she was excited for the opportunity to play volleyball and represent her country.
For Schiffler, nee’ Gerlosky, joining the team had greater impact than she could have ever imagined: in 2010 she met Alex Schiffler, a member of the German Men’s Sitting Volleyball Team when the U.S. hosted the Sitting Volleyball World Championships in Edmond, Oklahoma at the University of Central Oklahoma; the couple was married the next year.
Michelle is one of two U.S. Sitting Volleyball athletes to meet their spouse through para-sports. Roderick Green (West Monroe, Louisiana) met his wife, Katrin, during the 2004 Paralympics when they were competing for the U.S. and Germany in para-track and field.
International relationships and marriages are not uncommon among Olympians and Paralympians. In addition to Roderick and Katrin Green and Michelle and Alex Schiffler, there are at least 15 other Olympic or Paralympic couples who met their spouse while competing for their country.
“I had come early before our match to watch Ukraine play China and I was sitting on the bleachers,” Michelle said. “I remember hearing a voice trying to get my attention and I turned, and I swear, I couldn’t see anything else around me.
“At the time I didn’t know where he was from or anything about his disability. He just took my breath away.”
Michelle was born with a shortened right arm due to amniotic band syndrome; a strand of amniotic fluid from the membrane wrapped itself around her developing limb, preventing growth.
The disability didn’t slow her down as a child. She played volleyball and basketball, also trying shot put and hurdles in track and field for a brief time. Schiffler currently plays with a prosthetic arm to help with passing, blocking and attacking. Off the court she says she feels most like herself without the prosthetic limb.
“When I was a kid I started taking it off earlier and earlier in my school day, and then I think in second grade I just told my parents, ‘I’m not wearing it anymore.’ I threw it over the fence for good measure,” she said laughing.
Michelle was living and training in residence in Edmond when she met Alex, who suffered osteosarcoma as a child. The bone cancer led to a rotationplasty, a procedure where the cancerous bone is removed. The couple married in a simple ceremony in Las Vegas eight months later – “We realized it would have been insanely expensive for one or both of our families, so we told our close family and drove the 13 hours from Oklahoma to Vegas,” – and was forced to make a difficult decision. Both were rising stars with their respective teams with high hopes of making the Paralympic Games in London the following year.
“I was splitting my time back and forth between Oklahoma and Germany for a while, but after a while (Head Coach) Bill Hamiter realized this was serious and has been really supportive,” Michelle said.
The couple initially settled in Germany, allowing Alex to train full time with his team while Michelle continued to train from afar.
The following summer the hard work paid off when Michelle and Alex both were named to their respective nation’s Paralympic Sitting Volleyball Teams. Michelle and her U.S. teammates won a silver medal, falling to China in the final. Alex and his teammates defeated Russia 3-2 in the bronze medal match.
In June 2015, Michelle and Alex added a new title to their already full resumes: “Mom and Dad.” The couple welcomed Marlena last year, giving Michelle a little more than a year to return to top form ahead of this year’s Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. The couple moved back to the States following Marlena’s birth, allowing Michelle’s mom to assist the couple as they traveled around the world in pre-Paralympic tournaments this year. In September, Marlena will travel to Germany to stay with Alex’s parents as the international couple seeks gold in Rio.
Michelle already has earned a Paralympic silver medal and two World Championships silvers. A gold medal would be the culmination of a six-year journey that began with a stranger getting her attention before a match.
“You could say that motherhood and a gold medal are both goals I’ve had in my life,” Michelle said. “I’ve put all my eggs in one basket this quad, and I feel that this team has peaked to the point that I really think we’re going to get it.”
The U.S. Women’s Sitting Team, which has a long rivalry with China, is on an upward trajectory: in March the team won gold at the World ParaVolley Intercontinental Cup, defeating China both in pool play and the gold medal match. The team then topped Russia 3-2 in a five-match exhibition tournament in May, following that performance with a 6-0 record at the Dutch Tournament in July.
“I just really look forward to being in Rio with Alex,” Michelle said. “He’s in a really good place, I’m in a really good place, and I think both of our teams are just really focused right now.”