After an hour discussing the nearly endless list of Randy Stoklos accomplishments, the man responsible for them turned wistful, almost rueful.
“I am not an Olympian. I’ve never gone to the Olympian Games,” the 59-year-old said on SANDCAST: Beach volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter. “I am not an All-American. I’m not a gold medalist.”
He may not have those accolades, Stoklos. But it’s also fair to wonder: Could anything, at this point, improve the impossibly gargantuan legacy of Randy Stoklos?
You can count the number of people who have impacted the game as much as Stoklos has on one hand. You might be able to do so with one finger.
Here is the man who was the first to a million in prize money, a Manhattan Beach Open champ at the age of 20.
More than 200 times, the man would appear in an AVP final. He’d win 123 total “opens” as the old school types call them, four of which were Manhattans.
“Imagine being in the finals and losing 86 times,” he said, and he meant it, too. Few in their right mind can imagine being in 86 finals at all, let alone losing 86 of them, particularly when you’ve got 123 victories on the ledger.
Would being an Olympian really change much about Stoklos, in the eyes of the beach volleyball fans?
What’s being called an Olympian, an All-American, compared to being dubbed the Kings of Rio? He and Sinjin Smith, the greatest duo in the history of the sport, claimed that title. They still have it, too, even after all these years.
Four years ago, more than three decades after he and Smith grabbed the hearts of Brazil by winning the FIVB World Championships in Ipanema, Stoklos was in Rio for the 2016 Olympic Games. A homeless man on the street recognized him, silver hair and all.
“We were walking down Copacabana, and there’s this guy, and he’s a bum, he’s lying on a park bench, and he sits up, and he sees me, and he goes ‘The King of Rio!’ No joke,” Stoklos recalled. “That’s how popular we became. It was fun going down there and talking to the locals and the people and they said ‘Oh my God we watched you! My parents forced me to watch you!’”
It may be 2020, and the beach world may be enthralled with the new kids on the block — the Hawai’ian generation, Norway’s Beach Volley Vikings, Russia’s increasingly deep depth chart.
But make no mistake, that homeless fellow in Rio had it right: Randy Stoklos is still the King of the Beach.
To tell you the truth, none of this should have happened. Not the 123 wins, good for third all-time. Not the Volleyball Hall of Fame. Not the Kings of Rio. None of it.
Not if it had been up to Rudy Stoklos.
A Polish man who survived Hitler’s Nazi Germany, even escaping a concentration camp, Rudy didn’t want to see his son waste his time on the beach with those derelicts and bums with no goals, no vision, no chance at a future. No, no. His son was going to work for him in the shop, helping him run the family’s loudspeaker business.
“I got pulled out of practices in high school to go work in the family business,” Stoklos said. “I did that, sweeping a 20,000 square foot building. Even doing that, I remember my father so vividly going ‘You’re not doing it right! It’s one, two, three push!’ He was an interesting guy.
“He was very successful, very smart, he just didn’t have the thought of him coming to America and having a kid and him playing beach volleyball.”
He was only OK with it when his son’s quirky hobby resulted in offers all up and down the coast to play in college. Even then, Rudy negotiated the terms of a scholarship offered by UCLA.
“He got Randy a little better deal than I opened with,” UCLA’s legendary coach, Al Scates, told the Tampa Bay Times. “He was a tough businessman.”
Even with those tightly negotiated terms, Randy still left early. In 1981, when he was 20, Stoklos left UCLA, pursuing beach full-time.
That was the year he won the Manhattan Beach Open.
“I never even saw the Manhattan Open. I didn’t even know what I was getting into,” Stoklos said. “The ironic thing was Jim Menges and I played the week before, and we took a seventh at Laguna, which didn’t fare well for me, a young buck trying to play with one of the best of all time. But we decided to play again and thank God we did because we ended up winning the following the week.”
Randy Stoklos was officially on the map.
Someone took note. His name was Christopher St. John Smith — Sinjin for short. The following year, in Santa Barbara, Stoklos’ usual partner, Andy Fishburn, was out of town.
“I said ‘Let’s go and play,’” Smith recalled on SANDCAST a year ago. “So we played and did well. It wasn’t good for (Andy).”
It may not have been good for Fishburn, no, but it was perhaps the best thing that could have happened for the sport of beach volleyball. Born was the most successful partnership in the sport’s history, one that would result in 115 wins, victories becoming so regular that “I’m not going to say the sport got boring,” Stoklos said, “but there was a number of years where everybody was going ‘Oh, not those guys again!’ ”
But they were more than winners, more than automaton athletes who showed up, punched their time cards, grabbed their trophies, and left. They were the faces of beach volleyball, and they knew it. They’d show up days before tournaments started, barnstorming the local towns, signing autographs until their hands were cramping. Then they’d do it again, building the sport with their own hands — work even Rudy would have been impressed with.
“We were serving a purpose, and the purpose was to be successful and to represent the sport and ultimately doing that I think made the sport a bigger sport and the bottom line was to get the sport into the Olympic Games, which we did,” Stoklos said. “If we weren’t the team that we were, I don’t think the sport would have gotten there.”
They were the only team courageous — or crazy — enough to skip the then-lucrative AVP tournaments for events on the fledgling FIVB. And they were punished for it, slapped with a $70,000 fine in 1992 for skipping AVP Seal Beach to play in Almeria, Spain. At the time, it was the largest fine in professional sports.
To them, it was worth every penny.
“We understood the value in it because there had to be a demonstration sport for it to go into the Games,” Stoklos said of that Almeria tournament, which was used as one of several exhibitions for the International Olympic Committee to view beach volleyball.
Stoklos went so far as to get on his knees, in the middle of stadium court, and beg then-IOC president Antonio Samaranch to put beach volleyball into the Games.
“He said ‘Yes, we will,’” Stoklos said. “For me, it was probably the most important time in my life with the sport.”
And that, right there, says everything you need to know about Randy Stoklos, and the legacy he has left, and continues to leave, in this sport. The most important moment, to him, was not one of his 123 wins, or cementing his name on the Manhattan Pier four times. It wasn’t getting inducted into every kind of Volleyball Hall of Fame you can imagine.
It was when the president of the IOC promised him that the sport — his sport — would become global, available to every country in the world, should they choose to endorse it, and put on the biggest stage in sport.
“I wanted to have the people around the world to play the sport of beach volleyball and do what I did,” he said. “The feeling of going out to the beach, playing in front of thousands of people, winning a tournament, drinking a beer, jumping in the water — there’s nothing better in the world.”