The pink cap has been replaced by graying hair, giving Karch Kiraly a serious look that befits his moniker in the volleyball world — “The Computer” — even more now than when he was playing.
Kiraly, beginning his second full season as head coach of the U.S. women’s national team, has concocted a plan to take the program one significant notch higher than its best showings in more than 50 years of international competition: three silver medals and a bronze in the Olympic Games; two silvers and two bronzes in the World Championships; and a silver and two bronzes in the World Cup.
“No gold,” said Kiraly, who won nothing but gold in his three Olympic appearances: in 1984 and 1988 with the U.S. men’s indoor team, and in 1996 on the Atlanta beach. Kiraly, 53, was the women’s assistant coach when they lost to Brazil in the gold-medal match of the 2012 London games, a repeat of the Brazilians’ victory in the 2008 final in Beijing. In the two Olympics before that, Brazil knocked the Americans out of medal contention.
The 2016 Olympics will be in Rio de Janeiro, and Kiraly is eager to turn adversity into advantage. “I can’t imagine a more perfect place to make history against the team that ended our last four Olympics,” he said. He cited the hostility of South American crowds — “They bombard you with eggs, tomatoes, oranges, D-cell batteries” — as a motivating factor. “There’s nothing better than shutting them down.”
Brazil and the U.S. — the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in current world women’s volleyball rankings — will be firing plenty of salvos at each other before 2016. This summer, they are scheduled to play a four-match series known as the U.S.A. Volleyball Cup. The first two matches will take place within driving distance of Santa Barbara — on Saturday, July 5, at UC Irvine’s Bren Events Center, and Sunday, July 6, at USC’s Galen Center. They will play twice more in Hawai‘i. The year’s major event will be the FIVB World Championships in Italy.
Almost 30 women made their 2014 debut in U.S.A. uniforms last Friday at the SBCC Sports Pavilion. They were divided into red and blue teams that played six sets of volleyball — each side winning three — under the watchful eyes of Kiraly, his coaching staff, and several hundred spectators in his hometown.
“I know this gym well,” Kiraly said during a chalk talk with a cluster of fans before the exhibition. “My buddies and I used to break in.” They’d play volleyball until somebody kicked them out. He fondly recalled taking lessons from his father, Las, at East Beach and playing for hours on end with his friends. He said their unstructured play, “a lost art,” was an enjoyable way to learn the game. “I was lucky,” he said. “I grew up when there were no video games and no club volleyball. I’d go outside and play.”
Now he’s coaching the nation’s best women players. They were All-Americans in college — including Dos Pueblos High graduate Carly Wopat, who did not suit up last week because she was still taking classes at Stanford — and most of them spend October to May playing in professional leagues overseas. Kiraly wants to nurture their love of the game and instill a “growth mindset,” a concept he gleaned from the work of Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck. That mindset arises from the realization that one can always improve, and to do so entails taking risks. “We should make mistakes at least one-third of the time if we’re operating at the edge of our ability,” Kiraly maintained. “If you don’t make mistakes, you’re not learning.”
A positive frame of mind is essential, he added. Negative thinking results in the kind of body language that befouls a team effort. “If I’m thinking I suck,” Kiraly said, “I’d better make some adjustments.” If they take this volleyball icon’s words to heart, the players that make the next U.S. Olympic women’s volleyball team will be well adjusted and ready to roll in Brazil.
RISK-TAKER: When Taylor Phinney reached the top of San Marcos Pass in the leading pack of cyclists, 16½ miles from the finish line of Stage 5 of the Amgen Tour of California last Thursday, he made an instinctive and dangerous decision. He went for it. He separated from the pack with powerful strokes and folded his 6’5”, 190-pound body around the top tube of his bike, hurtling downhill at 70 mph. As he reached the bottom, he was the lone breakaway rider with a 25-second lead. “Well, crap, I’m committed to this,” he thought. There were nine miles to go, nine excruciating miles. “It’s my style,” said Phinney, the 23-year-old son of a veteran American cyclist and an Olympic speedskating gold medalist. “It’s very, very painful. I suffer a lot.” Pain turned to joy when he approached the finish on Cabrillo Boulevard and knew he was going to secure the second stage win of his career in a major road race. “An electric shock runs through you, holding your arms up the last 100 yards,” he said. “To soak it all in is what I live for.” The overall winner after eight stages would be Britain’s redoubtable Bradley Wiggins, but it was young Phinney, one of the nicest guys you could find in any sport, who put an indelible stamp on the ninth Amgen Tour of California in Santa Barbara.
BANQUET OF SUCCESS: Rick Olmstead, who was Karch Kiraly’s volleyball coach at Santa Barbara High, was among seven inductees at the 47th Santa Barbara Athletic Round Table Hall of Fame banquet Monday night. During his acceptance speech, he deemed Kiraly “the most self-motivated kid I’ve ever been around.” Greatness also springs from supportive families and communities, a point that was brought up by every member of the new Hall of Fame class: Stefanie Christoferson, Megan Enyeart, Mike Fitzgerald, Lola Trenwith Georgi, Scott Winnewisser, and Joan Russell Price.
COURT OF CHAMPIONS: It is no coincidence that world champions of volleyball, surfing, and water polo have come out of Santa Barbara, a playground of sand and water. But there is also a strong legacy of basketball here. Hoops junkie Curt Pickering has made that point by establishing the Santa Barbara Basketball Court of Champions. The inaugural class of 22 coaches and players will be honored on Sunday, June 1, at 6 p.m. at Fess Parker’s DoubleTree Resort. These names will be familiar to area basketball fans, in many cases stirring vivid memories: Bill Bertka, Don Ford, Carrick DeHart, Ben Howland, Mark French, Jamaal Wilkes, Brian Shaw, Jerry Pimm, Holly Ford Emerson, Phil Patton, Jack Trigueiro, Andrew Butcher, Maury Halleck, Sal Rodriguez, Larry Crandell, John Moore, Don Volpi, Kirsten Moore, Erin Alexander Brown, Gary Colson, Gary Cunningham, and Vic Bartolome. Pickering said that NBA legend Jerry West, who has had a longtime relationship with coaches Bertka and Colson, will attend the dinner. The cost is $90. Call 969-7542 for reservations.