ANAHEIM, Calif. — It was an unusually warm afternoon in Southern California and an unusual time to get the chills. But the tanned arms and legs of Karch Kiraly — the famous volleyball player, now 55, coaching the United States women’s national indoor team in search of its first-ever Olympic gold medal — were covered in goose bumps.
“Oooh,” he said, pointing at an arm. “Karch bumps.”
He was telling a little story about the first team he coached, which was nothing like this team, and the interruption of goose bumps and a smile was as unexpected as a hiccup. Kiraly, still gracefully lean and square jawed, speaks slowly and thoughtfully, with crisp enunciation and long pauses. What comes out of his mouth sounds like a final draft.
But he has plenty of big stories to tell. As a player, he led U.C.L.A. to national championships, won gold medals with the American indoor team in 1984 and 1988, and won another in the inaugural beach volleyball event at the 1996 Atlanta Games (with Kent Steffes). He was named the best volleyball player of the 20th century by the sport’s international governing body.
But he did not begin coaching until about 10 years ago, when his sons reached high school at St. Margaret’s Episcopal, a small private school in San Juan Capistrano, Calif.
“They lost every match, and they lost every game of every match,” Kiraly said. “So they lost, 3-0, 31 times. My wife said, ‘You’ve got to help them out — help them get a little better.’ So I thought, Yeah, I’d like to see them taste a tiny bit of success. At least win a game in volleyball.”
So one of the world’s most famous volleyball players became a co-coach of the St. Margaret’s team. The next season, they won a game — “They celebrated like they had just won the national championship,” Kiraly said, and he told them that if they could win one game, they could probably win two, maybe even three. And that is what they did, taking the match, 3-1.
And by the time Kristian Kiraly was a senior and Kory Kiraly a junior, St. Margaret’s was in the small-school title game, and the following year they won the thing.
Just as he got to that part of the story, Kiraly’s body tingled and was covered in bumps. He smiled.
“I’m kind of a volley-nerd at heart, and I’ll gladly fess up to it, but little things get me really excited,” he said. “For those kids who endured that tough season, a really tough season, and for them to go as far as they did and eventually lead to a title is a tremendous life lesson.”
Credit: Bob Galbraith/Associated Press
While Kiraly was co-coaching volleyball at St. Margaret’s, the United States men’s team won the gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The coach, Hugh McCutcheon, decided to move to the women’s team, and Kiraly became a candidate to replace him. But the leap from St. Margaret’s to the national team was too big, even for Kiraly, and he knew it.
Instead, he became an assistant to McCutcheon, the job overlapping with his stint at St. Margaret’s for a couple of years. At the 2012 London Olympics, the American women won a silver medal for the second Olympics in a row, both gold medal match losses coming to the Brazilians. And when McCutcheon left afterward, Kiraly got the head job, with the mission to go to Brazil in 2016 and finally win gold.
As Kiraly sat in a warm gym and told the story about St. Margaret’s, a white dry-erase board that he used to coach the women’s national team stood nearby.
“We fight for and protect the relentless pursuit of that which has never been done,” was written on it.
Recalling Rio de Janeiro
On a Friday afternoon in early June, Kiraly left his cluttered office at the American Sports Center in Anaheim, a Costco-size warehouse housing a sea of hardwood courts for volleyball and basketball. It is where U.S.A. Volleyball trains. Kiraly’s office, on the second floor, has a window overlooking the courts. A primary purpose of a tall metal cabinet is to support a tangle of trophies won over the last couple of years.
There was a team scrimmage that night at a nearby high school, open to the public, so Kiraly wore a U.S.A. shirt tucked into belted pants. For someone who grew up playing on the East Beach courts in Santa Barbara, who won 147 beach tournaments as a pro and was a six-time most valuable player of the Association of Volleyball Professionals beach series in the 1990s, pants and a collared shirt count as formal dress.
He slid his 6-foot-3 frame into the driver’s seat of his Honda Accord. The back seat was smothered by a bag of volleyballs. He called his wife, Janna, and after he hung up, as he drove down Orange County’s wide boulevards divided by manicured medians, he soon was telling another story, this one about the first time he played in Rio de Janeiro.
It was the junior world championships in 1977 at the Maracanãzinho, the spiritual home of indoor volleyball for five decades, the same building where the sport will be held at the Summer Games in August.