SANDCAST: Karch Kiraly and the hunger for mastery

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Karch Kiraly
USA coach Karch Kiraly observes intently during Thursday's practice in Anahem/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

There’s a running joke in Santa Barbara, and maybe, if you were to ask a few of the locals, the “Nooners,” as they’re known at East Beach, you might still get a couple chuckles.

“Before you saw Laszlo Kiraly,” the joke went, “you’d hear him.”

He’d lay that Hungarian accent on good and thick, saying these crazy things that still get a laugh out of his son, Karch.

“I was a really quiet player because we played tournaments and he did all the talking and I let him talk,” Karch said on SANDCAST: Beach volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter. Karch had bigger things to worry about, anyway. Like how, as an 11-year-old kid, he could side out against grown men.

There was no youth volleyball when Karch, now 60, was a kid. No clubs, no gargantuan tournaments held at the Anaheim Sports Center, where he now works as the head coach of the USA Women’s National Team. His choices were two: Play against grown men, or don’t play at all. The latter was never an option. His choice, then, was a singular one: He was going to play against grown men.

And he was going to do it no later than 11 years old. His indefatigable enthusiasm for volley ran through his veins, passed down from his father, who played on the Hungarian junior national team before escaping the failed revolution and restarting his life in the United States. Karch was six when he began peppering with Laz, but it was a Sports Illustrated story that stoked the fire that continues to burn. He read a feature on Larry Rundle, who, alongside Gene Selznick, Karch argues, is the greatest talent to play both indoor and beach volleyball. The story mentioned that Rundle set the record for youngest to play in an adult tournament.

He set that record at 11 years old.

“We figured ‘Well we better match that,’” Karch said, laughing from his office at the Sports Center. “So I played in my first tournament at 11.”

It could go one of two ways, that challenge. A kid at that impressionable age could be discouraged, losing both of his matches, as Karch did that day.

“Uno, dos, adios,” Karch recalled. He could grow discouraged, quit, pick up a sport where he could play peers his own size and ability.

But this is Karch Kiraly, remember. If you’re reading this story, you know how it turned out. You know about the three Olympic golds, the three national championships at UCLA and four consecutive finals appearances. The record for AVP victories. You know that is not how 11-year-old Karch responded.

He looked at the scores: 16-14, 17-15. Yes, he lost. But barely so. And he lost to men — grown men!

No, no. This wasn’t discouraging at all. This was the galvanizing moment. Those men hadn’t taken it easy on the kid, for what grown man “ever wants to go back to his friends and say he lost to an 11-year-old kid or a 12-year-old kid?” Karch said. “That is just not going to happen if he can avoid it. They were relentless and merciless upon me. They served me every ball. I wasn’t tall enough or jumped high enough to hit hard or hit down. I had to figure out different answers. It was the best thing that could have happened to me because nobody wants to lose to some punky little kid. It helped me get better, a lot faster.”

Had to figure out the answers.

That sentence bears repeating because if anything can help to explain the nearly inexplicable and unparalleled level of success that Kiraly has reached, at every level of the game, it is that sentence.

He had to figure out the answer to beat grown men before he hit puberty. He had to figure out the answer as to how to navigate the tricky balance between beach and indoor, when a young coach named Doug Beal took over the U.S. National Team and declared that you could not do both.

It was one or the other.

He chose indoor. For three years, he gave up the game he so loved, the one he learned playing with his father on the breezy shores of East Beach. While his good friends Sinjin Smith, Mike Dodd, and Tim Hovland, among others, took to the beach, winning Manhattan Beach Opens, taking modeling gigs, building a nascent sport, capturing a new audience, Kiraly played in just one beach tournament in three years.

In 1984, the United States won the gold medal. Kiraly was the youngest member of the team.

“I just knew that was a price or sacrifice that I had to make to stay with the team to make the Olympic roster and play in the Olympics,” Kiraly said. “Everyone had to make their own decision and I would make that again.”

He did, remaining on the team, then helmed by Marv Dunphy, to win a World Cup in 1985, a World Championship in 1986, another gold medal in 1988, a team he captained. He still competed on the beach, when he could. Dunphy had been more lenient than Beal, allowing Kiraly to play in 25 tournaments over a four-year span, from 1985-1988.

In 1989, Kiraly took full-time to the beach. Though he had never left the game entirely, it was no small task to return to the level of his former teammates in Smith, Hovland, Dodd, and Randy Stoklos, who were winning most every tournament.

Just as he did when he was 11, Kiraly had to figure out answers.

Talk to Mike Lambert. He’ll tell you how Kiraly is able to do this. How he’s able to hang with grown men at 11, reverse a moribund indoor program into a bona fide world power fresh out of college, win more AVP tournaments than anyone in history despite playing in only a handful of tournaments in a stretch of his athletic prime. He’ll tell you about a rainy, windy,  cruddy day, just a few weeks after the season finished.

He’ll tell you how that explains everything, in a single anecdote.

“The weather was just terrible. And he was loving it,” Lambert said. “He was like ‘No one else is training today! This is awesome!’ He knew he was putting in one more training session in the bank while someone else is slacking. It was ‘Wow, if that’s the way you approach it, you’re going to do more than the next guy.’”

Kiraly has done more than any guy in the history of volleyball, indoor or beach. He has done, whether he will admit it or not, more than Rundle. More than Selznick. And he’s still pushing further. He’ll always be pushing further. And it’s not out of ego or a love for the trappings of fame.

It’s for the pure, unadulterated joy of getting better.

“Whatever level I was at as a player as a coach, the thing that drives me is this hunger to pursue mastery,” Kiraly said. “I would equate it to somebody who is in a martial art and they pursue it over a long period of time and they’re always working to get better. As soon as they get their first degree black belt, they don’t just quit and say that’s enough. They start training for their second degree black belt. It’s the same for me: Whatever level I’m at, I’m hungry to get to a better level.”

1 COMMENT

  1. Travis,
    I have read that you used to live in Navarre. In 1986, I was stationed at Eglin, and the AVP came to Fort Walton Beach. Tony Alas and I played against Karch and Ricci Luyties in the 2nd round of the loser’s bracket, losing 15-4. They had flown into Pensacola late the night before after National Team practice. I think they got to the hotel at 2 AM. They marched through the loser’s bracket and ended up losing in the finals to Smith-Stoklos. An impressive performance.

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