Still the One

Karch Kiraly won his third gold medal when he and Kent Steffes defeated Mike Dodd and Mike Whitmarsh in an all-USA final.

Peter Brouillet
Steffes had an MVP-type performance on his way to the gold.

When it was finally time to play for the men’s gold medal—the 80th and last match of beach volleyball’s Olympic debut—the battle, if not the war, had already been won. At least in the eyes of the AVP Four: Karch Kiraly, Kent Steffes, Mike Dodd, and Mike Whitmarsh. Make no mistake, all four walked out onto stadium court under gray and rainy skies representing the USA. But the AVP was a close second.

The final was an anticlimactic 12-5, 12-8 Kiraly/Steffes victory that gave Karch his third gold medal, making him the only volleyball player, foreign or domestic, to own three.

To be fair, it would have been virtually impossible to top the previous five days of competition, which included an epic come-from-behind 17-15 Kiraly/Steffes victory over Sinjin Smith and Carl Henkel that many are calling the greatest beach game ever played. Then there was the action off the court. Political intrigue stuck to this tournament like sand on sweat.

But in the end, the two USA-AVP teams got what they wanted: the gold, the silver, and the right to say they have the best players in the world. And they did it under an FIVB Olympic selection process they so despised, one that prompted AVP players to boycott the first of two U.S. FIVB events even though the rules required them to compete in one to have a chance to play in the Atlanta Games. They did it using the FIVB’s ball and court and rules.

“That’s what we wanted to do,” said Kiraly. “The four of us had a goal to prove that the AVP has the best players in the world and we did.”

Said Dodd: “I think [having both teams in the final] meant more to the AVP than anything else because when you come out and say you’re the best, you’ve got to back it up. We had four or five days’ practice with this ball, and we’re just not used to the rules. And through everything, and through incredible play by some of the other teams, we still managed to fight our way, claw our way, to our goal.

“We did what we came to do.”

With both teams standing on the two highest points on the medal stand, it didn’t seem to matter that it wasn’t an easy climb.

But both Kiraly/Steffes and Dodd/Whitmarsh flirted with disaster.

For the Mikes, it was their medal-round semifinal against the surprise team of the tournament: Portugal’s Miguel Maia and Joao Brenha, who were seeded 18th of 24 teams. On their way to an ultimate fourth-place finish, Maia and Brenha knocked the No. 2 (Smith/Henkel), No. 5, No. 6, and No. 7 seeds out of the tournament. So it wasn’t a big surprise that they led Dodd/Whitmarsh 12-9 in a match that meant the winner would play for the gold, the loser for the bronze. But once the Mikes got into their side-out groove, Maia/Brenha began to fall apart. Three hitting errors by Portugal tied the match 12-12, and, when Portugal made another hitting error, Dodd/Whitmarsh escaped with a 15-13 victory and a gold-medal date with Kiraly/Steffes.

After the post-match press conference, Kiraly came over to congratulate Dodd and Whitmarsh. Realizing how close he came to blowing the all-AVP final, Whitmarsh said to Kiraly: “We don’t need to do that anymore, do we?”

Replied Karch: “No.”

But Kiraly had his own near-miss when he and Steffes met Smith and Henkel in a championship bracket semifinal the day before. And although the loser could still battle back to the medal round, there was much more on the line.

It was the most anticipated matchup of the tournament. Kiraly and Smith won 22 tournaments together in the early 80s but have since become philosophical enemies, Smith choosing to play on and promote the FIVB tour and Kiraly doing the same for the AVP with the conviction that the FIVB was trying to put the U.S. tour out of business.

Smith and the oft-ignored Henkel almost did what no one thought they could: defeat Kiraly/Steffes. Incredibly, with Smith’s patent defense and shotmaking and an inspired Henkel at the net, Kiraly/Steffes found themselves trailing 12-8.

Kiraly/Steffes started to chip away, eventually taking a 13-12 lead. But Smith/Henkel refused to fold. Henkel stuffed Kiraly for the 14-13 lead, but they couldn’t score on three match-point tries. Up 15-14, Smith/Henkel served one more time for the match but again couldn’t score. Finally, Kiraly/Steffes pulled it out. Kiraly blocked Sinjin, Steffes scored an ace on a serve to Henkel’s left, and a Steffes kill off Henkel with no block up ended it.

“I thought we were going to kill them,” Steffes said after the match. “They proved me wrong. I thought it would be 15-8. I wrote that down up in my room. I knew they were going to come out and play their best game. I just wasn’t aware that their best game was that good.”

Before Kiraly could even sit down at the subsequent press conference, he was asked about Smith and Henkel’s performance.

“My opinion has changed,” Kiraly said. “I was mistaken. I didn’t expect [Smith] to play as well as he did. He played all phases of the game better than I expected. The way they played, I’m not so sure they wouldn’t have been here if they had gone through the [U.S. Olympic] Trials. But I wish they had.”

Asked what surprised him the most, Kiraly said: “First of all, Carl. Carl played a great game today. Sinjin’s skills are better than I expected them to be. The last time I’d seen him, he was not the player he is now. He was really struggling on our tour. I’m certainly man enough to admit when I was wrong, and I was wrong in my assessment about them.”

Sinjin, obviously basking in what was clearly one of the finest performances of his career, didn’t seem too concerned with the loss.

“We weren’t here to prove anything to Karch,” Smith said. “We were here to prove something to ourselves, that we could compete with anyone in the world.”

And for a week, they did just that. But it remains to be seen if Smith/Henkel can play at that level week-in and week-out on any tour, let alone the AVP.

The political turmoil also came to a head in the Smith-Kiraly showdown.

Kiraly was particularly peeved when FIVB President Ruben Acosta’s wife, Malu, openly cheered for Smith and Henkel.

In a rare departure from his usually stoic nature, Kiraly offered his impersonation (in as high a voice as he could muster): “Go Seeenjen. Go Carl.”

Malu said she was only rooting for Smith and Henkel because “it wouldn’t be good for the sport if they lost 15-3 like everyone thought.” Later, Malu came down to the press room and gave Karch a thumb’s up. Kiraly gave one in return; although one got the feeling it took a lot of will power for him to use the correct digit.

If anyone thinks what was settled on the court will have any impact on the FIVB-AVP fight, they are mistaken. Kiraly needed little prompting to reiterate his, and the AVP’s, stand that all three U.S. teams should have come through the U.S. Olympic Trials instead of Smith-Henkel getting a berth based on their FIVB tour ranking.

Kiraly has hammered the point since Smith/Henkel got the berth in January, so much so that even fans were tiring of it. But, if nothing else, Kiraly is a man of conviction, and it’s easy to understand why.

His father, Las, who escaped a German concentration camp in his native Hungary before coming to the U.S., was so incensed over the Olympic selection procedure that he vowed not to attend the games.

From the looks of things, the situation isn’t going to get better anytime soon. FIVB beach volleyball director Angelo Squeo said in Atlanta that the FIVB wants to make sure there is never another U.S. Olympic Trials and that all teams will qualify for the 2000 Games through four to six FIVB Grand Slam events.

Although Smith will likely not play in those Games (he’d be 43), he should have a hand in them, which means the Kiraly-Smith feud will probably continue.

Smith’s amazing Olympic run ended when he and Henkel lost 15-13 to Portugal, a match that was played less than two hours after the Kiraly/Steffes match.

Many were looking forward to a Smith/Henkel vs. Dodd/Whitmarsh medal-round semifinal, but it never materialized. Perhaps, Smith/Henkel used up their emotional fuel against Kiraly/Steffes. With the match versus Portugal tied at 13-13, Smith spiked the ball, but Maia’s dig came back over the net and landed on the back line for a 14-13 Portugal lead. The match ended when Henkel hit into the net.

Smith said afterward he still has the desire to compete.

“Right now, my main focus is playing,” he said. “I know I don’t have too much longer left. Injuries will dictate how long I play. I’ve been able to get myself back to a point where I can compete. It’s a very, very tough thing to leave this game when you’ve been playing so long.”

When Dodd/Whitmarsh finally stopped Portugal the next day and Kiraly/Steffes held off a pesky Canadian team 15-11, the USA-AVP teams, indeed, got what they wanted.

But even Kiraly acknowledged the rest of the world is catching up, saying after the match with Canada: “For now, anyway, we are the best. But not by much.”

At least the all-USA-AVP final seemed to diminish the politics. Even a constant drizzle couldn’t dampen the spirits of a capacity crowd at the 8,000-seat Stadium Court.

And when Kiraly/Steffes took their place atop the medal stand, the war was, at least for the moment, no more. Instead, it was the essence of what we want to Olympics to be.

There was Steffes, who, despite the attention given to Kiraly, was often his team’s MVP during the tournament. He fulfilled a boyhood dream he had when watching Bruce Jenner win the decathlon at the 1976 Olympics. “I told my mom I wanted to go to the Olympics and be a decathlete,” Steffes said. “So they put a little sand pit in the back yard, they got me a Frisbee and a shot put, and they hung a plastic gold medal around me. I was eight.”

And then there was Karch, who wanted his father in the stands as he had been for his previous two gold medals. Karch made a plane reservation for Las and then called his father. “Do you want me to come?” Las asked. After a long pause, Karch said: “You’re putting me in a tough position. Yes, I’d like you to come.”

After arriving at 5 a.m. the day of the match, Las Kiraly stood in the stands waving the same American flag he’d waved when the U.S. men won the indoor gold in Seoul, Korea, and watched his son make history.

Originally published in October 1996

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