tampabay.com

Aging star, ageless skill

Karch Kiraly, a 46-year-old professional beach volleyball icon, has been playing for 27 years.

By BOB PUTNAM
Published May 31, 2007


The eyes that can detect open spots across the net sprout subtle lines at their corners. The creaky knees make it more difficult to run down slam-dunk spikes. The fingers bend oddly, souvenirs of digging and setting volleyballs for years.

Karch Kiraly is 46 years old now, a number as startling as his record 148 titles in 27 years in professional beach volleyball.

This weekend, Kiraly, an ageless icon in his sport, will compete in the Association of Volleyball Professionals tour at the St. Pete Times Forum. Today, he will conduct a clinic at Club V, 12901 U.S. 19 N, Clearwater, from 7 to 8:30 p.m. The cost is $60.

"It's a challenge to play with guys 20 years younger than me," said Kiraly, who is playing his final season on tour. "But I relish it. The drive is still there."

Kiraly is doing everything imaginable to fight Father Time. He gets more rest, eats healthier foods, plays fewer matches. He stretches more, works out more frequently.

"Kiraly may be 46, but I'd put his fitness level out there with anybody on tour," teammate Kevin Wong said. "He's built like a tank."

Kiraly got his good, old-fashioned work ethic from his father, Las, who played for a junior national team in Hungary and left home for America during the 1956 revolution.

Years later, Kiraly's father attended medical school at the University of Michigan and brought his son along to games and Saturday tournaments around Ann Arbor.

While looking for a place to intern, Las Kiraly discovered Santa Barbara, where the family eventually settled. Karch Kiraly began playing volleyball at 6.

"At first, I would bat the ball back and forth with my dad," Kiraly said.

Las Kiraly, 72, stopped playing recreational volleyball three years ago.

"My dad used to wear his trunks underneath his suit and play in the afternoon," Karch Kiraly said. "I still have a long way to go to catch up to him."

Indoors or on the beach, Kiraly always stood out. He was a beach volleyball champion at 18, then a UCLA All-American and three-time NCAA champion. Then, star of the U.S. national indoor team, the best player on the 1984 Olympic gold medalist squad that helped end the Soviet Union's dominance in volleyball.

Kiraly graduated with a degree in biochemistry, but medical school had to wait while volleyball became his priority.

He was an Olympic gold medalist in '88, then a pro indoor star in Italy, where his team won the Italian league championship and paid Kiraly a record $1-million for one season.

Then back to the beach, where he won another Olympic medal in '96 and has dominated beach volleyball for the past two decades.

"I never went back to medical school," Kiraly said. "What became a postponement became a career in something else.

"I never intended on playing volleyball this long. But it's been great. My office is at the beach."

With his career winding down, Kiraly is looking forward to launching the Karch Kiraly Volleyball Academy.

The academy, which is sanctioned by USA Volleyball, will start with two one-week sessions for high school girls this summer -- one in Anaheim, Calif., the other in Virginia Beach.

He also will host the first U.S. Open of Beach Volleyball. More than 1,000 volleyball players are expected to compete in up to 15 divisions when the tournament is held Sept. 21-23 in Huntington Beach, Calif.

"I'll still be busier than ever," Kiraly said.

"I'm finding all kinds of ways to stay involved and help the sport grow."

Bob Putnam can be reached at putnam@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4169.

Fast Facts:

 

AVP tour in Tampa

Location: Grounds of St. Pete Times Forum, 401 Channelside Drive, Tampa.

Tickets: Courtside seats $44.75; general admission, $24.75. Call (813) 287-8844 or (727) 898-2100.

Today: Men's and women's qualifier, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Friday: Main draw, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Saturday: Main draw, 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

Sunday: Men's final, 2:30 p.m.; women's final, 4:30 p.m.