More from the archives: Don Patterson, then the editor of Volleyball Magazine, wrote this feature about pro beach volleyball player Randy Stoklos in the November/December 1990 edition.
It is mid-afternoon at Manhattan Beach during the Offshore Manhattan Beach Open in late June, and at this particular moment, the look on the face of Randy Stoklos tells us that he would much prefer to be spiking Scott Ayakatubby’s head than any old volleyball.
“Don’t even talk to me,” yells Stoklos, blue eyes glaring daggers in Ayakatubby’s direction. “Get a life.”
Stoklos, the pro beach tour’s top-seeded player since, oh, about the downfall of disco, and longtime partner Sinjin Smith have just been dumped into the losers bracket by Karch Kiraly and Brent Frohoff.
Throughout the match, Ayakatubby, another player on the tour, has done his utmost to make sure Stoklos feels the sting of each and every lost point, throwing verbal jabs at him in the same fashion in which a kid jeers at the neighborhood bully when he’s about to climb into the safety of his mother’s station wagon.
Randy Stoklos is the bully of the beach. At 29 years old, 6-4, 225 pounds, he is a perfect blend of Magic Johnson and King Kong. And when you hit volleyball harder than anyone else on the planet, you tend to take a lot of guff from the rest of the pack. This is the downside of being No. 1.
Karch Kiraly has every right to stake his claim as the world’s greatest all-around player based on many accomplishments including, of course, his contributions to the two gold medals earned by the United States in the 1984 and 1988 Olympics. But the beach has always belonged to Randy Stoklos. It is his stage, and he has won more tournaments in the past nine years than any other player on the tour. In 1986, he won 10 in a row and altogether 16 of the 20.
The following year he won 15 of 22. At times, he has been so good that people have said he is bad for the sport because he wins so much it becomes boring. He doesn’t buy that.
“How about the Boston Celtics from the ’60s on up?” he says. “What, that’s not good for the game? For the media and all the other players it might be nicer to see other teams win, but as far as I’m concerned that’s a bunch of hogwash. Every dog has his day. It’s not going to change the hype of the sport.”
Still, every time he wins, every time Fila gives him a raise on his already hefty endorsement contract, every time a woman calls him on a radio talk show and asks him if he’s married, younger players undoubtedly take note and think: “I’d sure like that to happen to me.” And if they can’t top him on the court, why not stick it to the big guy a little bit with a snide remark here and there?
Most of the time, Stoklos just answers with a thunderous spike, but there are times when it gets under his skin and he’ll do a little shouting or shoving. Saint Randy he isn’t. He gets ticked off same as everybody else.
It isn’t necessarily the feeling of satisfaction from being No. 1 that makes Stoklos so protective of his territory. It’s really the fact that he has been through too much on his way up the ladder to let anything slip through his fingers without making a little noise.
There were the long afternoons at Muscle Beach when he was 15. He would stand around with his friends, Mark and Brad Barber, and touch the ball back and forth until somebody yelled “Big Game” and all the hackers got their chance to actually play.
There was his first amateur tournament when he played with a high school buddy and finished tied for 26th. Up 14-6 in the game in which they were eliminated, Stoklos made countless mistakes and gave the match away and then nearly cried.
There was the deal he had to work with his coach at Palisades High School to get a pair of tennis shoes because his father, a hard-working man who emigrated from Poland during World War II, didn’t want to spend money on something as frivolous as shoes used only for the purpose of playing a game.
After each step to the next level, he was pushed back. He spent one year at Santa Monica Community College, worked on his grades and won a state championship. A year later, he attended UCLA where he played for one season before being declared academically ineligible. He channeled all his efforts into volleyball and left little time for studying. Soon after, the coaches of the U.S. national team told him he had more potential than any player in the country. They wanted him in San Diego to train for the ’84 Olympics. He tried it for a while but eventually had to quit because it was too difficult commuting back and forth between San Diego and Los Angeles where he was working full-time for his father. His father figured learning how to assemble loudspeakers was a lot more important to Randy’s future than playing volleyball.
Add it all up, and it’s easy to see why he doesn’t take kindly to people who get in his way — players, fans, anybody.
Not long ago, a spectator who had topped a few too many cups of suds was heckling Stoklos from his seat on the beach. Next thing you know, Stoklos was in his face.
“You don’t pay anything for that seat,” Stoklos told him. “I’m a professional athlete and this is how I make my living. Do I mess around with the way you make your living?”
“And believe me,” Stoklos says, “the guy shrinks to the size of a pygmy.”
As for other players on the tour, Stoklos has a fairly simple rule. If you want to beat him, beat him on the court. Don’t waste his time talking trash. Stoklos doesn’t expect anybody to bow down and kiss his feet, but he thinks he has earned a certain degree of respect.
“I remember when I was younger and I moved up through the ranks,” Stoklos says. “I never did things or said things that would take away from a player.”
Which brings us to the little confrontation he had with Kent Steffes at the Fort Lauderdale tournament back in March. Steffes, a young player with potential, tried to enhance his chances of beating Stoklos with a little verbal intimidation. Stoklos caught up with him in the hotel after the first day of the tournament and told him he didn’t appreciate all the banter. A shouting match followed, and then a few pushes. Soon, somebody came and broke it up.
A handshake and apologies before the championship match the next day didn’t keep a lid on things for long. A week later, back in Santa Monica, Stoklos couldn’t believe what he was reading in a newspaper. Essentially, Steffes was quoted as saying he planned to pound Randy Stoklos throughout the rest of his career and he planned to enjoy every minute of it.
“Now, that’s a pretty heavy thing to say about somebody that you haven’t conquered,” says Stoklos. “OK, I’m getting a little bit older. But I’m still not a dead dog. I think, for the most part, the pounding is going to be on somebody else. And if you don’t believe that, just look at the track record.”
“Hey Mom,” shouts Randy Stoklos, “I’ve got some questions for you.”
Sitting on the couch in his mother’s house, the beast of the beach suddenly looks and sounds a bit like a school kid asking for help with his algebra. There is no hint of the hitman stare he gives his opponents and no trace of the high-octane intensity that prompts him to punch his fist skyward after a particular spectacular block.
Alice Stoklos enters from the kitchen.
“In what year did Dad emigrate to the United States?” Randy asks. “Nineteen forty-three? 45? 47?”
“Forty-seven,” answers Alice, in her thick German accent.
“And you met Dad in 47?”
“I met Dad in ’47. I was one of five Americans held in European camps. It just happened that there were two boats going about a week apart to the United states. They held a dance before that, and he asked me to dance.”
As fate would have it, Rudy Stoklos entered a New York night club some time later and spotted Alice, who was having a grand time with one of her girlfriends.
Without even the slightest hint of hesitation, Rudy approached her and, as Alice recalls, stated very directly: “I know you. Let me have your phone number.”
“Two weeks later,” Alice says, “we were married.”
By comparison, Randy’s climb toward success in volleyball is nothing short of trivial compared to what Rudy endured in Poland, though similarities can be seen in their character — strength and the desire to succeed.
Persecution from the Nazis put Polish nationalists in grave danger. Rudy once had to jump from a train bound for a concentration camp and often had nothing more to eat than old potatoes he found in trash cans. Emigrating to the United States didn’t immediately solve all of his hardships. Rudy and Alice’s early married life was spent in a small run-down apartment in New York City where rats ran the floors and the only furniture was a bed.
Deciding California offered a better lifestyle, Rudy, Alice and Randy’s older sister Karen headed west on
Route 66. Settling in Pacific Palisades, the Stoklos family grew to six. After Karen, who is 10 years Randy’s senior, came Randy and his twin sister, Rhonda. Then 10 years later, Curtis.
Rudy Stoklos worked his way up from audio technician to owner of a loudspeaker company and never wasted a minute in the process. At night, he would come home late from work with a handful of high fidelity and business magazines, read them cover to cover, sleep for three, maybe four hours, get up, have a cup of coffee and go back to work.
Rudy died two years ago at the age of 67, and the sad part of it is that he never afforded himself the time to enjoy what he worked all his life to achieve.
There were never any vacations, never even nights out on the town. What bothers Alice is she sees a hint of the same compulsiveness in Randy.
“There are now beginning to be similarities, as a matter of fact, dangerous similarities,” she says. “The same smartness and the same stupidity.”
“Wait a minute,” says Randy cutting in. “For the most part, I’m much more logical than my father.”
Rudy wasn’t much for listening to the other guy’s opinion, whether it made sense or not. You can just imagine how easy it was for Randy to convince him that there would ever be any payoff to all the hours he spent playing volleyball. Many times, Rudy would pull Randy out of his high schools practices to work shifts at the company. Ever the perfectionist, Rudy would make Randy re-sweep the football field-sized floor of the warehouse after showing him how to do it properly.
On the stipulation that he wouldn’t shirk his responsibilities with the family business, Rudy allowed Randy to make the commute to San Diego to practice with the national team. Randy tried it for a while, hauling speaker parts back and forth and assembling them in his spare time. But that didn’t mix well with long hours of practice and sleeping on the floors of friends’ condominiums, so he returned to Pacific Palisades. And sure, once in a while he thinks about what it would have been like to be on the team.
“Yes,” he says, “it was a loss. I feel sometimes that I missed out.”
Yet with the twinges of regret, he feels a certain amount of satisfaction, too. He wasn’t ther to have a gold medal draped around his neck, but he was sure one of the guys who provided the competition that helped the Kiralys, the Steve Timmonses and Chris Marlowes reach their championship form. Anyway, he had a good head start in a beach game that would soon grow big enough to earn him a healthy chunk of change.
All of this was directly or indirectly related to the decisions his father made for him. Some were undoubtedly better than others, but on the whole, what Rudy passed along to his oldest son was a feeling that there is only one position to take in life, and that is the first position. Second-in his eyes-was no better than last.
“When he didn’t win,” Alice recalls, “his father would take (Randy’s) poster and turn it backside and say ‘loser, loser.’ I mean the guy would come in second and he’d call him a loser.
“He knew that I knew what it took to win,” Randy says. “He knew that I was capable of winning every event that I participate in. You strive for number one.
“And that’s it.”
“One more picture, pleeeeeeease.” One of the girls giggles, hands the camera to her friend and scurries over to stand behind the big blond guy, who is sitting under his Fila umbrella taking a break between matches.
Randy Stoklos waves with his right hand and flashes one of those elect-me-president smiles.
More giggles. The girls run off.
Routine stuff. This guy Stoklos gets his fair share of attention from women and from everyone for that matter. What else would you expect? He looks like a movie star. Andy Warhol once called him the “Adonis of Beach Volleyball.” In Brazil, he had to be escorted out of matches the way the Beatles used to be escorted from concerts. Women scream for him outside his hotel room door.
Which begs the question of whether or not all this gets a little distracting. Fila pays him $250,000 a year just to wear their clothes and make a few appearances. He does commercials for Coke, Sprite, Snickers, McDonald’s and Gillette. All told, he pulls home about half a million dollars a year and he has invested it wisely, owning an apartment building and four houses, one of which he bought for his mother.
But the time he puts into volleyball takes a slice out of his social life.
His schedule makes relationships difficult. Three days home and four days on the road doesn’t leave him with an abundance of spare time.
“I haven’t had the time to enjoy dating,” he says. “It’s been kind of difficult for me because the volleyball comes first.”
And that is because volleyball is a symbol of all that Randy and his family have been through and a reminder of what his father always told him: that if you work long enough and hard enough at something you will be the best. It was through his father’s tireless efforts that the family eventually wound up in Pacific Palisades which is the perfect place to be if you are to take up the sport of beach volleyball.
“It says a lot for destiny,” Stoklos says.
“You never know how the book is going to be written for you. Some things came easy to me, but the funny thing is, when you think about it, things come easy when you work hard.”
Birthdate: December 13, 1960
Birthplace: Santa Monica, California
Home: Pacific Palisades
High School: Pacific Palisades
Greatest accomplishment: Winning 1989 World Championship in Brazil, dedicated to his father Rudy
Biggest disappointment: Losing to Tim Hovland and Mike Dodd at 1984 Manhattan Beach Open
Most Exciting match: While at Santa Monica Community College, trailed 14-6 in the fifth game to Orange Coast before rallying for 16-14 victory.
If I couldn’t play volleyball professionally, I’d play: Golf
Favorite food: Italian
Favorite music: Rolling Stones
Other sports: Surfing, golf
Favorite athlete: Magic Johnson
Most trouble as a kid: Caused SWAT team to be called after throwing firecrackers into neighbor’s yard
Sponsors: Fila, A’ME, Molten, I Dig Volleyball, Nintendo (King of the Beach game)