Karch Kiraly has often been called the Michael Jordan of beach volleyball, but it might be more fitting to compare him to Hank Aaron. They both achieved magic career numbers: Kiraly’s 148 tournament championships and Aaron’s 755 home runs. They both performed with consistency, dignity, and longevity. To many baseball fans, Aaron’s number will be the most respected no matter how much it is inflated by Barry Bonds.
If 148 is topped in the near future, however, there will be rejoicing on the beach. The only player who can do it is Karch Kiraly himself.
Yes, at the age of 46, almost three decades after he began playing in open tournaments as a mop-haired teenager-his shaggy locks long since replaced by a trademark pink hat-Kiraly is still one of the toughest competitors on the sand. His foot is firmly on the throttle as he hurtles toward the sunset of his playing career, with a future as a mentor and ambassador for the sport ahead of him.
Kiraly has announced he will retire from the Association of Volleyball Professionals (AVP) at the end of this summer. His last competition in California will be this weekend’s Manhattan Beach Open, a tournament of much pomp and circumstance. Kiraly has won eight titles there, more than any other player. Two weeks later, Kiraly plans to play in the Brooklyn Open at Coney Island, and his 356th and final tournament will be the Cincinnati Open, from August 30 to September 2. It seems strange that he will put down his last spike in the Midwest, but Kiraly more than anybody else is responsible for popularizing beach volleyball across the country. He has been victorious in 24 different states.
[After this article went to print, it was learned that Karch Kiraly dropped out of the Manhattan Beach tournament due to an injury. He hopes to play in the remaining tourneys, however. See the report here.]
It was at Tampa, Florida, in early June when Kiraly came oh-so-close to winning No. 149 with his newest partner, 34-year-old Kevin Wong, another former UCLA Bruin. They upset the tour’s hottest team, Todd Rogers and Phil Dalhausser, in the semifinals, but Jake Gibb and Sean Rosenthal outlasted them in the final. Rosenthal, who was in diapers when Kiraly won his first crown, said he could not believe Kiraly was retiring.
Kiraly played in three open tournaments during the summer after he graduated from Santa Barbara High. A year later, on May 27, 1979, he partnered with Sinjin Smith and won the championship at Santa Cruz. His third crown came on July 4 of that year on his hometown sand, East Beach, where he had first batted a volleyball around with his father, Dr. Laszlo Kiraly.
Smith went on to set a career record of 139 victories, primarily in a potent partnership with Randy Stoklos. Kiraly played sparingly on the beach during the ‘80s because of his obligations to the U.S. men’s indoor volleyball team, with which he won Olympic gold medals in 1984 and 1988. When he returned to the sand full time, Kiraly made up lost ground in a hurry. He and Kent Steffes dominated the AVP, winning 13 consecutive tournaments at one point, and they won the inaugural Olympic beach tournament-Kiraly’s third gold medal-at Atlanta in 1996.
Kiraly surpassed Smith’s record in 1999 with Adam Johnson. He has won titles with 13 different partners, the last with Mike Lambert at Huntington Beach on August 13, 2005.
To put the 148 wins in perspective, the active U.S. player with the next highest victory total is Todd Rogers, a 33-year-old veteran who followed Kiraly’s footprints at East Beach. He has 29 wins.
There is a player out there who has a shot at surpassing 148. She is Misty May-Treanor, the all-time women’s leader with 83 titles. May-Treanor turned 30 last week, and if she continues her current winning pace with peerless partner Kerri Walsh, she could approach Kiraly’s record at the 2012 London Olympics.