Beach Volleyball – Karch Kiraly

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by Faye Rapoport


Every now and then I come across an athlete who has accomplished just about everything possible at every level of his or her sport. When it comes to volleyball, that athlete is Karch Kiraly of the AVP Pro Beach Volleyball Tour, who in addition to his pro career is the only player in Olympic volleyball history to win three Gold medals. Kiraly was part of the U.S. Gold Medal indoor teams in 1984 and 1988, and added a Gold Medal in beach volleyball at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games with teammate Kent Steffes.

When trying to list the championships Kiraly has earned and the accolades that have been heaped on this player, it’s hard to know where to start. In beach volleyball alone, Kiraly has won 143 pro beach titles and became the most winning beach volleyball player of all time when he and Adam Johnson captured the 1999 Chicago Open. Kiraly has won beach titles with 12 different players, including 76 with Steffes. He was the first player to earn more than $2 million in career earnings, and he became the first player to break the $3 million mark at the last tournament of the 2002 season in Las Vegas.

Before his startling career as a pro beach volleyball player, Kiraly made his mark on the indoor court. He led the USA National Team to two consecutive Olympic Gold Medals (1984, 1988), and to the first-ever Triple Crown (1986 FIVB World Indoor Championships). He was named the FIVB’s “Best Player in the World” twice (1986 and 1988). As a professional player, Kiraly led Il Messaggero of the Italian Professional League to the 1991 team title. He served as ambassador for USA Volleyball from 1990-1995.

As for high school and college, let’s just say that Kiraly was CIF Player of the Year as a senior at Santa Barbara High School, and was inducted into the UCLA Hall of Fame in 1992 after an All-American volleyball career for the Bruins that included three NCAA championships. His jersey (No. 31) was retired on March 7, 1993 at UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion.

But Kiraly isn’t all about awards. He learned the game on the beach at age six from his father, Dr. Laszlo Kiraly, who was a junior player in Hungary before emigrating to the U.S. And now Kiraly, who is raising sons Kristian and Kory with his wife Janna, oversees the Karch Kiraly Scholarship Fund, awarding scholarships to graduating high school volleyball players. He has also authored several books on training and volleyball.

When did this athlete, you might ask, have time to talk about foot health? I caught him on his cell phone on August 7, while he was en route to the Manhattan Beach Open in California. And what he had to say might surprise you. According to Kiraly, careless beachgoers who leave litter in their wake cause most of the foot problems experienced by beach volleyball players. It sounds like you have been playing indoor and beach volleyball for most of your life. Is that true?
Kiraly: I actually retired from indoor volleyball about 11 years ago and haven’t really played since, except to do some clinics. From that point forward I have been focused on beach volleyball. I got my start when I was six years old and my dad started to teach me to play. When I first got involved it was on the beach, and when I was in high school I was playing both. I played high school indoor during the year, and beach volleyball in the summers. It was the same at UCLA. Then I played on the U.S. indoor team for about eight years, the Olympic team. During those years, when I had a few moments to spare I played some beach volleyball. Because this is, we are interested in what the differences were playing in shoes indoors and playing with bare feet on the beach.

Kiraly: It was strange early in my indoor career. The shoes that everyone aspired to wear were really almost like slippers. It was unbelievable how these world-class athletes were training for hours on end on a very thin gum-soled shoe. We as kids looked to these players, who were from the Soviet Union, Cuba and Japan, for our cues. In retrospect I think those shoes were terrible support for our feet. We went to a heavier and heavier shoe over time, to a much more supportive shoe, like a basketball shoe, even a ¾ high top. We had to watch out for landing on our teammates’ feet, especially at the net. It went through an evolution as we explored how much support we wanted, and eventually the U.S. team were the ones who were emulated as we got better and better.

As for playing on sand, sand is generally very soft, and I don’t want anything between the soles of my feet and the sand. I have worn socks on occasion when the sand is very hot, but I just don’t like the feel of it. I like the feeling that the sand is right below my feet. I can get a better push-off and can achieve more explosive movement when I have bare feet on the sand. So I only wear socks when I am forced to because of the heat. What do you have to watch out for in terms of injuries when you play on sand?

Kiraly: Mostly the problem is with people who don’t respect the beach and leave things behind in the sand. We have found things like buried barbecue coals that are still hot, plenty of broken glass, big rocks and something that we used to have but don’t anymore, those old pull tabs from aluminum cans. All of these things are hazards that we may face on occasion. Generally, though, there aren’t many foot injuries because the sand is so soft and forgiving. The worst thing is the heat because the sand absorbs it and can get very hot. Once I was playing in Belmar, NJ, and didn’t realize how hot the sand got. I ended up burning my toenails so badly that seven of them came off several days later. The heat just killed them and they fell off. But they grew back. Can anything be done to the court to deal with the heat?

Kiraly: We make sure that we have a hose nearby so they can hose down the court. It cools off the top layer of the sand. And what about the litter problems? Do they create courts for you where you play, or just choose a random part of the beach?

Kiraly: Some places that we play are landlocked sites, like in Las Vegas, Nevada. Places like that construct the court with sand that they bring in, so there are no concerns about what might be in that sand. But when we play at some real beaches there may be times when people have not cared for their beach very well. At Bradford Beach in Milwaukee, WI, I was warming up for one of our events with my partner at that time, Adam Johnson. He jumped for a ball and stuck his toe with a used hypodermic needle. Oh no!

Kiraly: Yes, he had to have that tested, and make sure there was nothing dangerous involved. Luckily everything was fine and he was OK. But it’s hard that some people don’t take care of their beaches. Even on a court that might be used regularly all year round for recreation, you might find trash. Who is your playing partner now?

Kiraly: I’ve been playing with Brent Doble since the start of the 2002 season. Do you run as part of your training for volleyball?

Kiraly: I don’t do any jogging in terms of getting ready for volleyball, because it’s not that kind of sport. I do a lot of plyometric training, really explosive movements like jumping and quick changes of direction on the soft sand at the beach. Beach volleyball is a very explosive sport, where you have to move at maximal effort for 5 to 10 seconds and then be at rest, and you might be doing that for five hours. So you have to train for that. Do you always train in bare feet?

Kiraly: Yes. I always do these exercises in bare feet. I only use footwear when I do weight lifting activities, or for example lunges in the weight room. Then I have regular training shoes on. But whenever I’m doing any kind of work in the sand it’s always with bare feet. Is sunburn or skin cancer a concern?

Kiraly: Yes, they are a concern, not as much for the feet as for elsewhere, the face, shoulders, neck, etc. I usually use a SPF 48 and keep coating myself throughout the tournament. Do you have any training or other advice for athletes interested in beach volleyball? It sounds like you’re really advising to train with bare feet.

Kiraly: Yes, it’s important to train in bare feet if you’re going to play barefoot. Absolutely. And other than that, really, if you have fun doing it, then you continue to do it. Play a lot and try to seek out better and better competition. Thank you for taking the time to talk with, Karch. I’m a big fan and we really wish you the best of luck as you keep playing.

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