Meet 13 people, and one college volleyball program, of influence. From a small college women’s team that broke the big-time streak of Southern Cal to an international model who earned more than style points on the sand to a couple of new faces that disrupted the old guard.
In America, few people have heard of Ruben Acosta. Outside the U.S., he’s hard to miss. As the president of the Federation International de Volleyball, the sport’s international governing body, Acosta pops up all over the world to shake hands, give out awards and entertain international sports dignitaries. You’ll find more photos of Acosta in the FIVB’s VolleyWorld Magazine than posters of Fidel Castro in Havana.
Until recently, the biggest news Acosta made in the U.S. was when he ruled to reverse the U.S. men’s victory over Japan at the 1992 Olympics. Decisions like this tell a lot about Acosta. He is powerful—and controversial.
But many who question his tactics will concede that volleyball has undergone tremendous growth during his term as president. In 1993, he was the driving force behind getting beach volleyball approved for the Atlanta Olympics by the International Olympic Committee, no small task considering sports such as triathlon have been knocking on the IOC’s door for more than a decade.
In the indoor game, the FIVB had a big year. It instituted the first women’s indoor Grand Prix, a tournament worth $1 million in prize money. In just its third season, World League paid out $3 million in prize money, three times the amount of the original 1991 purse. And the Grand Champions Cup was born, joining the Olympics, the World Championships, and the World Cup to give the indoor game a major international competition every year.
Without question, volleyball’s bank account has gotten a lot fatter in Acosta’s nine years at the head of the table.
At UCLA in the mid ’70s, Jeff Dankworth ran the offense as quarterback of the Bruins. In 1993, his first as the AVP’s full-time executive director, he quarterbacked the pro beach organization’s push into the world of big business, tirelessly negotiating deals to expand television coverage and boost prize money.
This year, NBC aired 11 hours of pro beach volleyball, doubling its coverage from the previous year, and prize money reached an all-time high of $3,700,000.
After a first year like that, what do you do for an encore? Well, expand. And keep expanding. There’s sand aplenty outside the U.S. and Dankworth and the AVP are exploring the world market, planning AVP tournaments next season in Italy and Spain.
Next stop, the moon.
Anjinho & Loiola
They weren’t the first team to arrive on American beaches from overseas, but they were the only team that ever caused the locals to worry. In the past, foreign players would show up, play an event or two and take off, realizing they were in over their heads. But Jose Loiola and Eduardo “Anjinho” Bacil stuck around and showed everybody that beach volleyball Brazilian-style isn’t far behind Southern California.
Not that it was easy.
“You live in a country, and you have 1,000 friends,” Anjinho said. “And you move to another country, and you have one friend.”
That one friend, Mike Dodd, helped the Brazilians get lodging and make the transition to American living. The rest they handled themselves.
After starting of as the 30th seeds at their first tournament in Ft. Myers, the boys from Brazil climbed to seventh by the end of the season, appearing in three finals. Anjinho assures they’ll be back next year, stronger, more experienced, and tougher.
And most likely, with a few more friends.
Where has Gabrielle Reece been lately? Everywhere. The Today Show, Entertainment Tonight, the Chevy Chase Show, ESPN II, the Vicki Lawrence Show, MTV, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, Shape Magazine, Fitness Magazine, Men’s Journal, Elle, Mirabella…
And what could be better publicity for the sport of volleyball than Gab’s face popping up with every change of the channel, every flip of the page? Let’s face it, volleyball needs the boost. It may be growing, but it isn’t football or basketball. Try walking the streets of New York sometime asking people if they recognize the name Karch Kiraly.
“Oh geeeez,” says Reece. “I get the feeling that the entertainment business generally doesn’t have any idea about volleyball. People don’t understand volleyball. They still look at it as a picnic backyard sport.”
Which is a little hard to believe for someone who takes it as seriously as Reece. If she had to choose between modeling and volleyball, it would be simple. Volleyball. Modeling assignments are worked around her training schedule, not the other way around.
This year, playing for Lady Foot Locker, Reece led the Bud Light 4-Woman tour in kills and blocks. Next year, she’d like to get better “between her ears,” changing her mental outlook to be as aggressive as someone 5'9" so she doesn’t have to rely on the physical luxuries of 6'3".
And you’ll be seeing more of Gab, guaranteed. Elle has hired her to write a monthly fitness column. Nike is making a shoe with a G on the back, her design. At 23, Gab is big, though she says the sports needs bigger.
“I don’t think I’ve made some huge impact,” she says. “I think it’s a beginning, but it’s not anywhere where I’d like it to be.
“If it’s just me, that’s not going to be enough.”
It had begun to look like one of the best players in college volleyball history wasn’t going to get a chance to soak up the feeling of winning an NCAA title. Bev Oden had done everything else.
Player of the Year.
But never won the big one.
Anybody who figured it was going to happen last December against the undefeated UCLA Bruins probably has lost Super Bowl bets on the Broncos. Although, in fairness, we must give due credit to the U.S. National Team coach Terry Liskevych, who bumped into Bev’s mom before the match and predicted a Stanford upset.
Sure enough, the Cardinal dropped the Bruins in four. Oden, seasoned by a tryout for a spot on the Olympic roster earlier in the year, led all hitters with a .452 percentage and took over the match when the Bruins threatened.
After that, she finally knew the feeling that had twice been experienced by her arch-rival from UCLA, Natalie Williams.
“I don’t think I can even put it into words,” she said. “For four years, it’s been the Bruins. They’ve always taken us out. So taking them out, especially when they [were] undefeated, it’s nice.”
After 11 years and 114 victories, Randy Stoklos made the call that shook the pro beach tour, ending the most successful partnership in the history of the sport with a message on Sinjin Smith’s answering machine. He says it was the hardest thing he’s ever done, but he figured the time had come.
“I was kind of in a position where I felt I had to make a move,” Stoklos said. “Sure, I could have come in second. Sure, I could have come in third. I could do that for the rest of my life, probably, with Sinjin. But why try to do something that we were so successful at doing and not have the same results?”
Post-Sinjin, Stoklos didn’t get the results he’d hoped for. His partnership with buddy Brian Lewis produced but one tournament victory, a rout in Chicago over Mike Whitmarsh and Mike Dodd. And by the final week of the season, on-court relations with Lewis had become so strained that the two parted, and Stoklos picked up Ricci Luyties, good for a runner-up finish at the U.S. Championships. Stoklos isn’t saying whether he and Luyties will be back together next season.
He also isn’t saying whether we’ll ever again see him playing alongside Sinjin, though he’s aware that a Smith-Stoklos reunion would be well received by pro beach fans.
“We played the kind of volleyball that was exciting,” he said. “It wasn’t always dominating, but it was something that people wanted to come out and see. I think, probably me making the move to play with somebody else might have hurt the sport a bit.”
It’s amazing, this streak of 59 in a row, considering Teri Clemens’ humble beginnings at Washington University (St. Louis). In 1985, her first year as head coach, she showed up at the first match to find 26 fans in the stands. She thinks 18 of them were members of her family. Eighteen is significant. That’s how many times her team lost that season.
These days, Teri’s Terrors pack the gym. And with good reason. In beating Wisconsin-Platteville in September, Wash U. broke a 16-year-old record of 57 consecutive victories set in 1977 by Southern Cal. They extended the streak to 59 before losing to Juniata later in the month. Even in defeat, the upbeat Clemens found a positive.
“I guess that’s the nature of society that everyone should focus on that loss, but I’ll focus on what it did for us,” she said. “It taught us that we’re not unbeatable.”
Close, but not quite.
Having grown up in Manhattan Beach and dated AVP standout Brett Frohoff for eight years, Holly McPeak was no stranger to the beach volleyball scene. But 1993 was different. This year, she was a participant rather than a spectator.
“I never thought in a million years I’d be playing for the AVP,” she said, sitting propped up against a net post on Santa Monica State Beach last August. “And here I am, going to the AVP party, not as a date, but as a player. I just never thought that would happen. It feels good.”
In a field of eight players, most of whom had made big splashes in international competition, McPeak stood alone at the top by the end of the first AVP women’s season, proving her modest 5'6" stature wasn’t a problem. Her victory total was 10. Her take was $65,000.
And she even brought a date to the party.
A guy named “Anjinho.”
It may have been four years since UCLA had won a national title, but Al Scates was wearing white dress shoes when he showed up for this year’s championship match at Pauley Pavilion. That was a pretty good indication that he hasn’t lost any of the moxie that has helped him become the winningest coach in college volleyball. Inconspicuous, he isn’t.
“He’s just about the only innately confident person I’ve ever met,” says former Bruin Greg Giovanazzi. “He doesn’t have to fake it at all.”
Back in the ’70s, Sinjin Smith remembers Scates showing up at the beach and competing against younger players who, by all rights, should have been blasting him off the court.
“Even then, when he was well past his prime, he’d still come out ready to challenge anybody,” Smith said. “And he knew he couldn’t jump as high or maybe spike as hard as a lot of the guys out there, but he had a way to win, one way or another. He’d find their weakness.”
In 1993, he found Northridge’s weakness, which led to a Bruin victory and another NCAA title—his 14th in 24 years.
Liz Masakayan & Karolyn Kirby
The only real surprise this season on the WPVA tour was Austin, Texas. There, Karolyn Kirby and Liz Masakayan didn’t win. Everywhere else, all 12 cities, they did. As expected.
“But they weren’t easy,” says Masakayan as if she’s been through this before. “And we came through the losers’ bracket, sudden death, probably half the time. Four or five tournaments.”
Maybe they were tough, but they weren’t as tough as they could have been if the WPVA’s talent pool hadn’t been picked through by the AVP at the beginning of the season. Kirby and Masakayan could have left, too. The AVP, of course, had sports reserved for them. But they decided to stick with the WPVA, which some said was playing the role of martyr, but they say it was best for the sport of women’s volleyball.
“I don’t want to sound like a martyr,” Kirby says. “I want what’s best for the sport. I’ve always wanted that. And I think I’ve been misinterpreted. Whenever you take a strong stand, you’re going to be a target.”
Best for the sport, Kirby says, is the women sticking together. So for now, until the fate of the still financially troubled WPVA is decided, she and her partner will stand by their decision. With no regrets.
“I’ve always thought I did the right thing. Never once thought I didn’t,” Masakayan says. “It’s a decision I can live with and feel good about. And if things turn around, and, let’s just say, the AVP prospers and the WPVA folds, I’m still not going to feel bad about my decision. Whatever’s going to happen, whoever’s going to prosper, I will always feel happy about my decision.”
Kent Steffes & Karch Kiraly
Gin rummy. That was the only challenge Karch Kiraly backed down from this season. His wife, Janna, asked him to play on the eve of the U.S. Championship final. And he declined.
“I’m always trying to get him to play gin because I’m a little better gin player than he is,” Janna says. “It’s fun for me to bat him. But he hates it. He doesn’t like games where there’s chance involved.
True, says Karch.
“And,” he adds, “I’m just a lousy gin player.”
On the volleyball court, Karch and partner Kent Steffes left little to chance in 1993, training like fiends in the off-season and steamrolling through 19 victories, including a sweep of the majors: the three Cuervo Golds, the Manhattan Open, and the U.S. Championships.
It seems they’ve left themselves no room to be better next season. Of course, we said that last year. When you’re on a roll, everything goes right, which is why Steffes isn’t afraid of chance games.
“I love to gamble,” he says. “I go to Vegas all the time. Play roulette. That’s a big game of chance.”
“I’m up lifetime.”
Originally published in February 1994