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Karch Kiraly’s Long Journey Through Volleyball Continued In Tokyo

by Marc Lancaster

Karch Kiraly reacts after defeating Team Brazil during the Women's Gold Medal Match at the  Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 on Aug. 8, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan.

 

Asked a few years ago to share his favorite memory from the Olympic Games, Karch Kiraly thought back to the moment it all began for him, standing in the tunnel at the Los Angeles Coliseum as Team USA entered the stadium during the Opening Ceremony in 1984.

“The sound,” he said. “I was part of a long contingent, that just as the USA contingent broke out of the tunnel and onto the track in the Coliseum — we kind of went women first, men behind, and short to tall, so I was just entering the tunnel as this USA team of 900-plus athletes was breaking out the other end. 

“The sound — oh, I’m getting goosebumps right now — the sound that came barreling down that tunnel almost knocked us over. It was a great metaphor for all we had been through, because we, the men’s volleyball team, held onto each other and thought, ‘Oh my gosh,’ and it took us a couple of minutes to get in there, and when we actually got to walk out there it was phenomenal.”

It was the start of a decades-long relationship with the Olympics for Kiraly, the central figure in American volleyball history. He added a fourth gold medal to his resume after coaching the U.S. women’s team to a historic victory this past weekend at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.

 

 

It remains to be seen whether that triumph will stand as the culmination of his Olympic career, but at the very least Kiraly, now 60, has a different perspective on success now than he did back when it all began.

He was only 23 years old in 1984, the youngest player on a team that would win gold for a country that had never even reached the Olympic semifinals before those Los Angeles Games. 

“Basically, none of us even knew what the inside of an Olympic Village was like, let alone how to compete at the Olympic Games,” Kiraly said, “but we still figured out a way to win.”

That team, which also featured icons like Steve Timmons and Craig Buck, established the U.S. as a volleyball power even in the absence of the Soviet Union, which had won three of the five previous Olympic men’s competitions and medaled in the other two before boycotting in 1984. 

Four years later in Seoul, Team USA beat the Soviets in the final to defend the crown as Kiraly won his second gold before turning his focus to the outdoor game. 

Beach volleyball made its debut as an Olympic sport at Atlanta 1996, and Kiraly was once again atop the podium, this time with partner Kent Steffes. Kiraly remains the only player to win gold indoors and on the beach.

While those successes were instant gratification of a sort, the second act of Kiraly’s Olympic story has been more of a slow burn.

Kiraly served as an assistant to Hugh McCutcheon with the U.S. women’s team at London 2012, where the U.S. fell to Brazil in the final for the second consecutive Olympics. 

He took over as head coach after those Games and began building toward Rio, where Team USA went undefeated in pool play before falling 3-2 to Serbia in the semifinals and going on to win bronze against the Netherlands. 

Kiraly’s two near-misses with the U.S. women’s team were just the latest in a string of disappointments for a program that was never quite able to reach the top step. That dynamic, rather than any personal gratification, was at the forefront throughout the coach’s preparations for Tokyo. 

“The goal here was not to help Karch win a fourth gold medal,” he said. “The goal was to help the USA women become Olympic champions.”

After they did, beating Brazil 3-0 in the final, Kiraly wiped tears from his eyes on the court at Ariake Arena before heading to a news conference where he methodically recounted the path that brought the U.S. women to gold at last. 

“In 11 previous Olympics, our USA women have won the silver medal three times — that is, they played in the final and lost in 1984 and 2008 and 2012 — plus two bronze medals,” he began. “So, five medals out of 11 Olympics, but no gold. So it was a very powerful emotion that overcame me to help this program, in this 12th Olympics, finally become Olympic champions. 

 

 

“I think it was more powerful in some ways for me today than when I was a player because the first Olympics I played in, we won. We didn't come close and lose, come close and lose, come close and fall short. But it makes it taste and feel much more special when you go through the hard times of losing an Olympic final in 2008, losing an Olympic final in 2012 — the only match we lost in 2012. The only match this team lost five years ago was to Serbia in the semifinal in Rio. And in both those losses, those were teams we beat earlier in the tournament. That's really painful; we know we were capable of beating them. 

“So when you go through that kind of pain, and those soul-crushing losses, it makes it taste that much sweeter. That's what hit me today, helping this special group of women who have such great character and integrity, and they also happen to be some of the world's best volleyball players, and helping this team and helping this program accomplish history, and do something that has come so close but not done before. That's what hit me.”

Kiraly’s players understood his reaction and appreciated where it came from after all they had experienced to reach that long-awaited moment.

“I think Karch knows what it's like to be here on this side of it, and he's wanted it so much for us and for this program, for the women's side,” said setter Jordyn Poulter. “He cares a lot, and he lets us know that he cares a lot. And I think that all just came to a head for him. 

“It's hard not to be emotional in that moment. Especially as a coach, you pour so much of yourself every day — emotionally, physically — into something that you believe in, and he's believed in us from the get-go.”

 

 

Before stepping down from the news conference dais, Kiraly brushed off a question about his future with the team, saying his only plans were to fly back to California and take his wife out to dinner after months spent apart this year. 

If Tokyo was the end of his Olympic career, though, he leaves with a remarkable legacy, playing a firsthand role in the first U.S. gold medals in three of the four volleyball disciplines.
Marc Lancaster is a writer and editor based in Charlotte. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.
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