KARCH KIRALY didn't invent volleyball, though one can be forgiven for having that impression. He is the only player to win Olympic gold medals in both the indoor game (1984 and '88) and on the beach (1996). He holds the most revered beach record, 148 pro tournament titles; the closest active player, Emanuel Rego of Brazil, has half as many. And Kiraly's prime, which began in the early 1980s, didn't end until he retired from the Association of Volleyball Professionals Tour last month at age 46. Even in his 40s he could turn up the bill of his signature hot-pink cap and deflate opponents. Just ask Dain Blanton, the 2000 Olympic beach volleyball gold medalist, who was on the opposite side of the net when Kiraly dislocated his right shoulder in 2004 and hobbled on two blown knees in '06. Kiraly not only continued to play both times but also won each match.
"He defines volleyball," says Bill Neville, an assistant on the 1984 U.S. Olympic indoor team. "It's as simple as that."
Kiraly (KEY-rye) had an exquisite blend of will and skill. At 6'2" he was a mere oak among the redwoods of the beach game. Once upon a time he had a 41-inch vertical; he was never particularly fast. But Kiraly did everything well, and two things better than anybody—pass and defend. "He was so easy to set because he would pass the ball perfectly every time," says Mike Lambert, Kiraly's partner in 2004 and '05. "He'd practically set himself." The oldest regular on the tour, Kiraly was the leader in digs (defensive saves) per game this year. Imagine 45-year-old Kevin Willis leading the NBA in charges taken. "Mind-boggling," says Kiraly's strength coach, Mike Rangel.
Then, too, Kiraly grasped the game at a deeper level, which is why he made such cunning passes and pierced holes in opponents even after his arm was shot. In preparing to become a doctor like his father, Laszlo—a pursuit Karch abandoned when his volleyball career took off—he majored in biochemistry at UCLA, wanting to understand medicine at the molecular level. So he approached volleyball as well: with assiduous preparation and attention to detail. When a teenage girl asked Kiraly how he prepared to win Olympic gold, he replied, "I never did. I only prepared to win the next play."
Laszlo, who had played for the Hungarian junior indoor team before he fled from that country after the revolution in 1956, taught Karch the basics—and loudly reiterated them when father and 11-year-old son started playing beach tournaments together in Santa Barbara, Calif. But before Karch made his mark in the sand, he ruled the indoor game. In 1981, a year before leading UCLA to its third NCAA title in four years, he joined the U.S. team, which had just finished 19th in an international tournament. With Kiraly, the Americans won the next two Olympic gold medals, beating the mighty Soviets in the '88 final in Seoul. Since his retirement from the U.S. indoor team the following year, it has earned just one medal, a bronze in '92.
Kiraly, however, had more gold ahead of him. He returned to the beach in 1989; seven years later he and Kent Steffes won the inaugural Olympic beach competition, in Atlanta. Soon rumors of Kiraly's impending retirement started circulating on the AVP Tour, and opponents attacked. Kiraly took every serve and did the bulk of the hitting, often swinging his right arm more than 300 times in a tournament. "That's like a pitcher pitching three straight days, 100 pitches each," says Kiraly, who has had three shoulder and two knee surgeries in 11 years. "It's harder wear and tear, but to carry that responsibility is very satisfying. Especially when I helped lead our team to victory."
Even when the operations started outpacing the titles—the last of which came in 2005—Kiraly remained formidable, until a calf injury sidelined him in August. At the Tampa Open in June he and 34-year-old Kevin Wong made it to the final, losing to Jake Gibb, 31, and Sean Rosenthal, 27, in a match that Gibb says was the most mentally exhausting of his career. It didn't help that almost everyone in the stands was rooting against his team. "Everybody loves Karch," says Gibb. "We love Karch."
Here's why: Without taking a moment to absorb the defeat, Kiraly grabbed Gibb and Rosenthal under the net and told them how proud he was of their perseverance. "For all his skills, everyone would agree that the best thing about Karch is that he's a great guy," says Lambert. "His word is always good. He's a great cook. He took the minivan while his wife [Janna] drove the Lexus. Until a few years ago he homeschooled his kids [Kristian, 17, and Kory, 15]. In fact, he should run for president. He's bulletproof."
For now, Kiraly's plans include running his volleyball academy for high school girls and promoting the U.S. Open of Beach Volleyball, the first edition of which ran last weekend. With that, he'll build on his most enduring legacy. "Karch inspired his partners, his opponents and the world of volleyball players to be better than they were, to be great," says Dodd. "In the end, who could do more for a sport than that?"