From: Vol. 2, Issue 31, August 2-8, 2007
By Nathan Wright
San Clemente Times
With three Olympic gold medals and a successful career on the pro tour, Karch Kiraly is one of the best volleyball players in the world
On a cold day in December of 1979 Karch Kiraly and his UCLA teammates struggled against a team of Japanese all-stars at the Tokyo Arena in Tokyo, Japan. Bruins Coach Al Scates still remembers his setters warming up in gloves and the freezing concrete floor that made the customary dives of indoor volleyball potentially dangerous. As the Japanese team pulled ahead, Kiraly took the game into his own hands. “Karch made a slashing dive to the concrete and came up with the ball,” says Scates. “Nobody ever dives on concrete. Once he went to the floor, everyone said, ‘Hey, we can do this.’ We won the next three games and the match.”
Kiraly’s success in Japan is one story out of a lifetime of achievement that embodies the most prolific volleyball player in United States history. His 32-year career cannot be told without tales of three collegiate national championships, three Olympic gold medals and 122 tournament victories on the Association of Volleyball Players (AVP) professional beach volleyball circuit. On the hardwood or the sand, Kiraly is the player who could do it all-digging, setting, blocking and hitting.
Later this year Kiraly, a San Clemente resident since 1988, will hang up his signature pink hat and retire from the pro tour to pursue careers in broadcasting and coaching. Southern California volleyball fans will have a final opportunity to watch him play locally when he competes in the AVP Manhattan Beach Open August 9-12 at the Manhattan Beach Pier. While he rejects the notion of retirement-he says he’s moving on to new challenges, not quitting the game-he speaks passionately of his time as a player and his decision to stop playing.
“I’ve played so much longer than I ever thought I would,” says 46-year-old Kiraly. “It has to come to a close sometime, and this year is as good a year as any. I’ve had a great, great time and I’ve been fortunate to play as long as I have.”
When it comes to longevity, Kiraly is an old man among boys. He competes against players literally half his age. “I don’t know if anyone thought it was possible for someone to compete in his 40s at this level,” says Kiraly. “My partner, Kevin Wong, and I really surprised ourselves when we made the finals in Tampa, almost winning the tournament.” Wong, 34, is another old-timer on the tour.
And long before Kiraly became a beach icon he hoped to become a doctor. As a youngster in Santa Barbara, Kiraly played beach volleyball with his father, Laszlo, a doctor himself who played volleyball on his lunch breaks. “He had Karch out on the beach when he was probably 6 years old,” says Scates. “[Laszlo] played volleyball for the Hungarian National Team as a junior player.” Like his father, Kiraly enjoyed science in high school and planned on one day attending medical school.
In the meantime he was the star on the Santa Barbara High School volleyball team. In 1978 he led the Dons to an undefeated season, capped by a California Interscholastic Foundation (CIF) championship against San Clemente High School. Unbeknownst to Kiraly, his future wife, a San Clemente senior named Janna Miller, watched him closely from the stands. “We had heard there was a guy who was considered the best high school player in the country,” says Janna. “I just thought he was really cute. I had a huge crush on him.” Kiraly would meet her in four more years.
As Kiraly’s high school career came to an end he met with UCLA’s Scates, who had already coached the Bruins to six national championships in the ’70s. “His father called me up and asked me to meet Karch,” says Scates. “We met at Denny’s at Calabasas, made a deal over a hamburger and he came to UCLA.” The coach admits that he had never seen Kiraly play. “This was fairly normal in the ’70s because my assistants did all my scouting for me,” he says. “We knew we were getting a good player; we didn’t know he would turn out to be the best player in the world.”
Kiraly didn’t waste any time establishing himself as a Bruin. At practice the freshman went head-to-head in the team’s circle drill-45 minutes of continuous sprinting, diving, jumping, push-ups and sit-ups-with team captain Sinjin Smith, who went on to have an excellent career on the AVP tour. “The two competed against each other from day one, and they were way ahead of everyone else,” says Scates. The two men led the Bruins to an undefeated season that year and won the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) national championship. Kiraly won two more championships in 1981 and 1982.
The Bruins volleyball program may have been in the midst of a dynasty, but Kiraly’s mind wasn’t just on the court. With his collegiate career nearing its end, he began looking at medical schools as he prepared to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry. By his fourth year he was also dating Janna, the same girl who watched him beat the Tritons four years earlier and who was now a Pepperdine University volleyball player.
But Kiraly didn’t end up going to medical school. “I took my last final [at UCLA] on a Friday at 2:30 in the afternoon, and the next day at 7 a.m. I jumped on a plane to meet the U.S. national team in Finland,” he says. “We went on a long tour in Europe and I never looked back.” Kiraly and the national team won gold medals in the 1984 and 1988 Olympics before he retired from indoor volleyball and moved his game to the beach, a place he found financial success.
In 1989 Kiraly played in 16 professional tournaments and brought home $96,378 in prize money. By 1990 he had garnered his first AVP most valuable player award, winning seven tournaments and $124,625 in prize money. He also picked up his trademark pink hat, a request made by one of his sponsors. With the hat came success, something he did not take lightly. “It started as a superstition and became a tradition,” he says. “I was the only one with enough nerve to wear pink. It’s become a curse that I can’t stop.” Kiraly has heard his share of catcalls. “I’ll be out at a tournament and hear, ‘Hey, Karch, the ’80s called and they want your hat back.'”
Kiraly’s success on the beach landed him right back in the Olympic spotlight in 1996 when beach volleyball debuted at the Atlanta games. His wife, Janna, whom he married in December 1986, and sons, Kristian and Kory, came along for the ride. While he was busy on the court, his sons’ attention was drawn to a big water park with a pirate ship behind the Olympic venue. Each day his sons asked him to take them to the park, and each day plans were postponed because Dad needed to take a random doping test. Meanwhile, Kiraly and partner Kent Steffes advanced to the gold medal game.
“We play the match, Ken and I win, and we all come together for a hug,” says Kiraly. “I found my wife and kids in the stands, and when I ran up to them, Kristian, who’s 5 [at the time], yells ‘Dad, Dad!’ I thought he was going to yell about the medal. Instead, he yells, ‘The water park is closed!’ They didn’t give a hoot about their dad winning the gold medal. They wanted to go to that water park. It was a great parenting moment because it really gave me a great perspective. They helped remind me what’s really important in life.” Kiraly and his sons visited the park two days later before flying home to San Clemente.
Kristian, 16, and Kory, 15, now students at St. Margaret’s High School in San Juan Capistrano, laugh about it now. They both play volleyball for the Tartans, a team Kiraly coaches along with Jeremy Daily. With the men of the family on the court, Mom is left to enjoy the action from the stands. “It has been really fun,” says Janna. “To have them playing the game that we love has been just wonderful. No offense to the other sports they play, but this game I understand and I love. I never dreamed that I’d be watching them play volleyball.”
“I had a blast,” says Kiraly. “That was one of my first coaching experiences, and I just immersed myself in being the best coach I could be just like I’ve always tried to be the best player I can be.” Luckily for the Kiraly family, the gym floor at St. Margaret’s is not made of concrete.
High School 1978: CIF Champion, Santa Barbara High School
Collegiate (1978-1982) 1979, 1981, 1982: National Champion, UCLA. Kiraly started all four years for the Bruins, won the national championship as a freshman, and served as
the team captain on the 1981 and 1982 teams. He was also invited to serve as an assistant coach on the 1983 team, which also won a national championship. The day after he
graduated he reported to the U.S. national team, who soon after won a gold medal in the 1984 Olympic Games.
Olympics 1984: Gold Medal, Indoor Volleyball, Los Angeles. 1988: Gold Medal, Indoor Volleyball, Seoul, Korea. 1996: Gold Medal, Beach Volleyball, Atlanta. Kiraly won three gold medals in the course of his career. In 1984 he was the youngest player on the team, and his gold in beach volleyball in 1996 was the first ever in the sport’s history. He also won two World Championships during non-Olympic years with the U.S. national team. During his years on the national team he played professional beach volleyball part-time.
AVP Professional Beach Volleyball (1984-current) AVP MVP: 1990, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1998. Kiraly began playing in the AVP circuit in 1984, but played part-time until the 1990 season when he played in 23 tournaments and won the MVP award. In 1992 he won his second MVP, winning 17 of 20 tournaments. To date he’s won 122 AVP tournaments, winning $2.6 million. In all, Kiraly has won 148 professional beach tournaments domestically and internationally, and collected nearly $3.2 million in prize money.