SPOTLIGHT: Volleyball’s G.O.A.T. is surprising himself as USA coach

RETURN TRIP — U.S. Women’s National Team coach Karch Kiraly (left) enjoys a laugh with team physiotherapist and athletic trainer Kara Kessans before Tuesday night’s game against Dominican Republic in Bossier City.

By HARRIET PROTHRO PENROD, Journal Sports

If you had asked Karch Kiraly when he retired from volleyball in 2007 as the greatest to ever play the game where he would be 15 years later, chances are he wouldn’t say, “At the Brookshire Grocery Arena in Bossier City, Louisiana.”

But that’s just where he is this week, coaching the U.S. Women’s National Team at the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Nations League. Don’t misunderstand: it’s not where Kiraly is that surprises him; it’s why he is here.

That volleyball has remained such as important part of his life after he enjoyed the greatest playing career in the history of the sport is no surprise. It’s the fact that he is coaching the sport that wasn’t really in his plans.

“For most of my playing career, I didn’t think I had the patience to coach the sport,” Kiraly said Tuesday night after his U.S. Women’s team defeated Dominican Republic 25-21, 25-17, 25-18 in its first game of this week’s tournament. “Our boys (Kristian and Kory) were playing volleyball in high school and one of them had a rough season.”

At that point, Kiraly stepped in to help coach his sons and, as he says, “They roped me into it.”

It’s a good thing for USA women’s volleyball that Karch and Janna’s sons got their father into coaching. In 2012, Kiraly took over as head coach of the U.S. team and began what he calls “an Olympics cycle.”

Unlike his playing days, Kiraly didn’t enjoy immediate (gold medal) success as a coach. There was success – a silver medal at the 2012 Olympic Games in London, the FIVB World Grand Champions Cup and NORCECA Continental Championship in 2013; Pan American Games in 2015, Pan American Cup from 2017-2019, the first-ever World Championship title in 2014, and a bronze medal at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

With all of that success, there was still something missing – an Olympic gold medal, which seemed to come easy to him as a player.

After becoming a four-time All-American at UCLA and leading the Bruins to three national titles (1979, 1980, and 1981), he joined the U.S. national volleyball team. As the squad’s outside hitter, he helped the United States win Olympic gold medals at the 1984 Games in Los Angeles and at the 1988 Games in Seoul, where he was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player.

Gold medals followed at the 1982 and 1986 world championships and at the 1987 Pan American Games. Twice (1986 and 1988) Kiraly was named the best player in the world by the Federation Internationale de Volleyball (FIVB).

In addition to being the winningest player in beach volleyball history with 148 career wins, Kiraly has the title of being the only person to win gold medals in both indoor and beach volleyball.

Surely that success would follow him into his coaching career. At least, that’s what he – and everyone – thought.

Then came the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. Or, there went the games. Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, history would have to wait one year. Then it happened.

In August 2021, the U.S. Women made history when they swept longtime rival Brazil for their first Olympic gold medal (25-21, 25-20, 25-14) in Ariake Arena in Tokyo.

Before that Sunday in Tokyo, the U.S. Women had won three Olympic silver medals and two bronze.

In his interview after winning the gold medal, Kiraly was asked why he cried after the match.

“Five medals out of the 11 Olympics, but no gold,” he answered. “It was a very powerful emotion that overcame me to help this program in this 12th Olympics finally become the Olympic champion.”

That was more emotion than Kiraly had shown after, as a player, he had won two Olympic gold medals as a men’s indoor player and one more playing on the beach. It seemed to mean more than all of what he had accomplished as a player.

“I think it was more powerful for me than when I was a player because the first Olympics I played in, we won. We didn’t come close and lose. It makes it taste and feel much more special when you go through the hard times.”

Back in 2019, Kiraly found himself at the Brookshire Arena for the Volleyball Nations League preliminary-round competition, which just happened to be the U.S. Women’s last competition in the United States.

Three years later, here he is again.

“This place brings back great memories,” Kiraly said after Tuesday night’s match.

Hopefully, this week will bring even more.

Photo by JOHN PENROD