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At 43, Smith still has the fire

By JOHN C. COTEY

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 22, 2001


CLEARWATER -- Sinjin Smith's right knee has helped give him NCAA titles at UCLA, beach titles around the world and two Olympic berths.

He is not sure how much more the knee has to give.

Operated on for the sixth time in September, the right knee threatened Smith's participation in this weekend's Beach Volleyball America tour stop at Clearwater Beach. But with partner Carl Henkel, Smith, 43, advanced to Saturday's quarterfinals with a 21-19, 21-14 win over 26-year-old Gaston McCau and 29-year-old Clearwater resident Chad Turner.

"There's a different mind-set now," Smith said. "Now it's like the older they make us feel, the more I want to play and beat those guys. My competitive fire has never left."

Smith and Henkel lost in the quarterfinals to Dax Holdren and Todd Rogers 21-16, 21-16, but the double-elimination format allows them to play today for the chance to meet Dain Blanton and Eric Fonoimoana for a spot in the title match. Two weeks ago, Smith thought his playing days were over. After surgery on the knee, he took six months to rehabilitate, and his first time back on the court did not go well. "Fearful isn't the right word, but I thought yeah, maybe I'm done," Smith said. "But I've thought that for the last nine years."

Though Smith unofficially ranks behind Karch Kiraly as the volleyball player with the most career wins (Kiraly holds a disputed 142-139 edge), winning championships has been more difficult in recent years. His last title came in 1992, though with more than $1.3-million in career earnings, including over $30,000 this year, Smith remains a viable force, especially off the court.

One of the most powerful people in the sport behind the scenes, Smith is president of the FIVB Beach Volleyball World Council. Promoting the sport worldwide is now his main goal. And with the merging of Beach Volleyball America and the Association of Volleyball Professionals -- both likely will soon be owned by Smith's agent, Leonard Armato -- Smith arguably will be the second-most powerful person in the sport.

In the women's draw, Barbra Fontana and Elaine Youngs and Holly McPeak and Rachel Wacholder advanced to today's semifinals to face loser's bracket winners for spots in the final. Today's matches begin at 8 a.m. on the Pier 60 South courts. The women's final is scheduled to begin at approximately 12:30 p.m., with the men's after.

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