What was Karch Kiraly, intense as he is, doing in the midst of all this mellowness, this seaside of tranquillity? He seemed out of place among the bikiniclad volley dollies and the beach boys and their practiced cool. The crowd on Florida's Fort Walton Beach near Pensacola, awash as it was with suntan lotion and beer, was so horizontal. And Kiraly was most definitely vertical.
Kiraly and his beach volleyball partner, Ricci Luyties, were fighting back through the losers' bracket of this spring's opening event of the pro season, and many in the crowd had come to see Kiraly, the captain of the U.S. national team. One beach belle kept shouting, "Come on, dahlin'."
Kiraly (keer-EYE) is indeed the darling of American volleyball. At 25, he is both the best and most famous volleyball player the U.S. has ever produced. He was the youngest member of the '84 Olympic gold medal team and MVP of the 1985 World Cup. He's also as good a beach player as you'll find, even though he competes only part-time.
The two-man outdoor game permits no weaknesses. A player must be able to pass (receive service), set and hit (spike) on offense, dig and block on defense, and serve. Kiraly does all those things exceedingly well. "He may not be the best hitter, the best defensive player, the best blocker, the best server," says John Hanley, a top beach player who was a high school classmate of Kiraly's, "but when you put it all together, he's the best."
In the beach tournament Kiraly and Luyties clawed back and won five matches to reach the finals against the undefeated, well-rested team of Sinjin Smith and Randy Stoklos, the top seeds. Despite nearly eight hours on the sand, Kiraly was still a dervish, driving Luyties and himself to a 15-7 win. In the second match the pair finally burned out, losing it 15-8 and thus the championship.
Kiraly, whose name means "king" in Hungarian, is one of the few players who have successfully bridged the indoor six-man game and the outdoor two-man game. He is the only player to have an Olympic gold medal and a world beach championship (in fact, two, in 1979 and '81). And while he gets keyed up, he's not flamboyant. Other players at Fort Walton Beach favored loud, flowered shorts; Kiraly wore generic white. When the U.S. team clinched the World Cup tournament in Japan last Nov. 30 to cement its reputation as the best in the world, a Brazilian, Renan Dal Zotto, was named the tournament's most spectacular player. Kiraly was simply the most valuable.
"It may be saying too much, but he is a once-in-a-lifetime athlete," says Marv Dunphy, coach of the national team, which recently played host to France in a five-match exhibition in April and will play a similar series in Cuba next week. "I don't expect we're going to see a performer like him for a long time," says Doug Beal, coach of the 1984 U.S. Olympic team. "It is generally acknowledged that the U.S. team achieved its success largely because of Karch's ability to play. He is one of those unique players who can bring five other players up to his level," says Beal. "He rarely falls to the level of players on the court."
Although Kiraly walks the streets of the United States unnoticed, in Brazil, where fans fill soccer stadiums for volleyball matches, he is stopped frequently on the streets. He writes a column for a Japanese volleyball magazine, and when he's in that country teenage girls mob him in hotels and write him fan letters by the hundreds.
When I saw you on television, I couldn't go to sleep in enthusiasm for hours.... All of your motion, I love. Do you have a lover or a wife? If nothing, I want to be your sweetheart.
—Letter from Shizuoka
"Whatever he's doing, it's like nothing else is going on," says Janna Miller, Kiraly's girlfriend. "At matches, other players will wave or smile at their girlfriends. To this day Karch has never looked at me, or even in my direction."