RIO DE JANEIRO — Karch Kiraly’s eyes always stay up, hands clasped behind his back, as he deliberately moves around the court checking in with each of his players. During Olympic training at Rio’s Navy School, he stands atop the referee stand, watching intently.
Kiraly has done seemingly everything in a remarkable volleyball career, the only player, man or woman, to win Olympic gold medals in both indoor and beach volleyball. He captured team gold in 1984 and ’88 and then became a beach champion at the 1996 Atlanta Games.
Now, he is looking to cap his golden Triple Crown by guiding the U.S. women to their first Olympic title this month in Rio de Janeiro.
The man named the international governing body’s greatest player of the 20th century surprised himself by how quickly he took to coaching. Rarely does such a decorated player emerge as an elite-level coach. Often, the best athletes might have trouble relating to those who lack the ability and drive that made them so successful.
“I could foresee myself having some frustration in trying to help people do what I tried to do on the court and maybe having some challenges in trying to transmit that,” he said. “I think if you had asked me in 2004, ‘Karch, you’re going to be coaching the USA women’s team from 2013 through 2016,’ I would have said: ‘What are you talking about? You’re a little batty right now.'”
He has signed on for another four years leading up to Tokyo in 2020, too. USA Volleyball CEO Doug Beal, Kiraly’s former coach, believes he has the perfect person running the program. Kiraly — along with China coach and former U.S. coach Jenny Lang Ping — would become the first person to win gold as a player and coach.
“It’s very unusual for a player that was as exceptional as he was to be able to transition that into being as special a coach as he clearly is,” Beal said. “He just continues to amaze me and lots of other people with just how good he is and how he sort of sacrifices his own ego, his own personality, to do what’s best for the team.”
The 55-year-old Kiraly started down the coaching path when his now-grown sons, Kristian and Kory, were just kids playing at St. Margaret’s Episcopal School in San Juan Capistrano, California.
“They had a really rough season. They lost every match they played. I think they lost 31 matches — 0-31 — but not only did they lose every match, they lost every set of every match, so they went something like 0-93 in that season,” he recalled.
“At some point my wife said, ‘You’ve got to help them out here, Karch you’ve got to get in there and just help them taste a little bit of success.'”
Janna’s urging was all it took. Kiraly cleared the idea with his sons, they established some guidelines — “I’m not dad when we’re there” — then went about turning the program right around.
Soon, St. Margaret’s had won its very first set “and they went nuts liked they’d just won the national championship,” Kiraly said. “It was awesome.”
The team went from last in the league to a third-place finish and a playoff berth, eventually earning a spot in the championship game of the small-school division. His boys’ tale of triumph with their teammates still brings Kiraly to tears.
“That was one of my early, proud coaching moments that they came out and won,” he said. “It was awesome and that kind of hooked me on coaching.”
Both of his sons, 18 months apart, graduated from their dad’s alma mater, UCLA, and are now working.
“I got to see firsthand how hard he worked to help his players — countless late nights after he got home — all for the love of the sport and deep caring for the players with a drive to bring them up to the highest standard possible,” Kristian said. “That applies to both the national team and St. Margaret’s.”
The family hopes to celebrate much more if all goes right in Rio for the man who has been a champion in everything he has done: from college to the Olympics to professional crowns in Italy and his storied career on the sand. Not that you’d ever know it just chatting with him.
“Everything he does is so sincere,” Kiraly’s 1988 Olympic coach and close confidante, Marv Dunphy, said Friday after U.S. training at Rio’s Navy School “People know when you’re real. The best coaches are authentic. The level of how much he cares is off the charts.”
Kiraly’s players at times marvel at his blend of credentials and humility. U.S. women’s captain Christa Dietzen so appreciates his patience, more than any of her other coaches along the way.
“It shows within our huddles in timeout how calm, cool and collected Karch is,” Dietzen said. “Sure, when we’re letting free balls drop or something like that, he’s going to let us know about it. That’s when we see his inner competitiveness come out, which he had his entire career as a player. And he continues to find that balance between the two.”
Taking over from friend Hugh McCutcheon after the Americans’ disappointing silver-medal finish four years ago in London as the favorite for gold, Kiraly has built a national team program his way. The players conducted valuable peer reviews on each other. Kiraly fundraised specifically to bring Megan Easy’s young son and husband on some road trips. He has embraced the statistics-crunching analytical side of the sport.
“There are some things that we care a lot about, and my hope would be that somebody might come into our gym for five or 10 minutes and see those pretty quickly,” Kiraly said. “If they’re not very apparent then we still have lots and lots of work to do. But there are some things we care deeply about, and one of them is this idea of family — not replacing their first family but being a second family.”