If you’re a fan of beach or indoor volleyball you’ve probably heard of Karch Kiraly. Karch is one of the most well-known beach volleyball players in recent memory as well as the most decorated Olympian in the sport, with three Olympic Golds. Karch’s love of the game began at a young age and continued at UCLA, where he played under Coach Al Scates.
“My father really infected me with his passion for the game. I’m still crazy head over heels for this game of volleyball. I started playing with him at six,” Karch said. “We entered [my first tournament] when I was 11 years old. I lost out quickly but it was just such a thrill to be able to toe-to-toe in the novice level with grown men. My dad gave me some great gifts. In terms of his passion for the game, and the experience he was my first teammate, my first coach, and still is a huge fan. Both of us are in love with the game. He’s always been a massive supporter of my career.”
Karch explains how beach volleyball evolved from the sands of SoCal beaches to the Olympic arena and some of the many athletes who helped pave the way for this career.
“There were so many people who came before me I mentioned one Larry Rundle, but even before him, people like Bernie Holtzman and Gene Selznick, Ron Hagen, and Ron Lang and just all of these legends of the sport who played their hearts out and really built a cult following up and down the coast of Southern California. People would wait all year for when the Santa Barbara Open would happen, or the Manhattan Beach Open, or the Santa Cruz Open, or the Laguna Beach Open. These guys were like gods, and I loved it when they would come to town in Santa Barbara and I fell in love with what they were doing and how incredible they were doing it. That certainly kept me going,” Karch said.
After the sport picked up popularity in the 80s and 90s, volleyball made its Olympic debut in the 1996 Olympics held in Atlanta.
“I’m so happy that volleyball, beach volleyball in particular, is so popular. It’s one of the most popular women’s team sports in the country. It’s big at the NCAA Tournament level, Club, high school, and everything else. It’s come a long, long way. This is not your grandmother’s or grandfather’s volleyball.”
While most players stick to one arena, Karch was able to make a name for himself in both beach and indoor volleyball.
“It is very difficult to be a really accomplished player in both versions of the sport area, and Misty would be the exception, they were both great indoor players. In general, people specialize especially as time goes on, you find more and more that a beach player might be a great beach player and not an international caliber indoors or vice versa. So it’s difficult to really excel in both. I’m the only one to win a gold medal in each,” Karch said. “But I’m looking forward to the day that just as Michael Phelps could participate competing eight races in seven days if they could, if some special player comes along, and they structure the schedule, right, and they could play on alternating days, I’d love to see the day when a woman or a man goes to the Olympics and wins a gold medal in each version in the same Olympics. And they’re going to come out exhausted, but very, very proud.”
In 2013, Karch became head coach for the U.S. Women’s National Volleyball Team and led them to a Bronze at Rio de Janeiro in 2016. He works with the Starlings program to make the sport of volleyball more accessible to talented players.
“Ever since I took over as head coach, one of the things that’s really near and dear to my heart is a program called Starlings Volleyball. It is a program for underserved people who might not be able to afford the normally very high costs of playing Club, Junior Club volleyball, those can run $2,000 to up to $7,000 a season, especially when they do a lot of travel and go to the national championships. Starlings is a fantastic organization that now has clubs in like 40 different cities around the country and has helped over 300 girls win full scholarships to go to play in college.
“One of the things I love most about the program is that once you’re done as a Starlings player, you immediately become a mentor. You go almost immediately from player to coach. Every year, our USA players coach and run Sterling’s program in our own gym in Anaheim as one of the ways that we try to support this great program that was started by a couple of USA legends. And that is Kim Odin on the women’s side and Byron Shuman on the men’s side, they inaugurated that program in San Diego around 1997.”
Hear Karch’s memories of Kobe Bryant, his thoughts on the current Olympics and much more. Listen to the full Legends Of Sport podcast here or watch the YouTube interview here.