‘Twelve Strong’ and Santa Barbara’s Karch Kiraly Take Gold

Hard-Fought Volleyball Glory and Other Local Connections to the Tokyo Olympics

It was a shock to Karch Kiraly’s system when his first foray to the Olympic Games at the helm of the U.S. women’s volleyball team ended on the lowest tier of the podium.

Kiraly had known nothing but success in the biggest events of his playing career — a CIF championship at Santa Barbara High, three NCAA crowns at UCLA, and three Olympic triumphs: The first gold medal for the U.S. men’s indoor team (1984), a glorious repeat (1988), and the first gold medal awarded in beach volleyball (1996).

He took it upon himself to help lead the American women to the pinnacle when he became their head coach following the 2012 London Games. He envisioned them receiving gold medals at Rio in 2016, and they were on their way until a semifinal match that went five sets, with Serbia winning the decider, 15-13.

“A soul-crusher,” Kiraly said.

Credit: Eric Francis

They did bounce back to take the bronze medal, and Kiraly set his sights on their next opportunity to win gold at Tokyo in four — then five — more years. And so the pandemic-postponed 2020 Olympic Games ended last Sunday with the U.S. sweeping Brazil in the women’s volleyball final, 25-21, 25-20, 25-14.

“I’m so happy for these amazing women,” Kiraly said through tears in the immediate aftermath. “I told them not only are they badasses, but they are now gold-medal winners!”

A day later, as Kiraly was packing up to head home to San Clemente, he expounded on his experience in a telephone conversation.

How this Olympic championship compared to his others: “Emotionally, this was the most powerful. The reason was all the suffering that the great players, teams, and coaches in this program have gone through. They were so close in 1984; losing in Beijing to Brazil in 2008; up 1-0 against Brazil in London and losing again; losing that fifth game five years ago. All that suffering, anguish, and heartbreak makes it that much sweeter.”

How the team handled the stressful nature of Olympic competition: “It’s natural to have butterflies, sweaty palms … that’s a good sign you’re prepared for battle, prepared to take on something difficult. When the team’s taking care of business, it can be less stressful. They played their best volleyball in the last three matches [all 3-0 sweeps]. They started strong and finished strong.”

They called themselves “Twelve Strong” and truly represented American diversity, with a core of players from the heartland of Nebraska (home of team captain Jordan Larson), Indiana, Ohio, and Illinois; African-Americans who played at Stanford and Penn State; and only one native Californian, Justine Wong-Orantes, who came from Chinese and Mexican-American parentage.

About the 5′6″ Wong-Orantes, who took up the libero position, giving up her role as a setter to taller players, and threw herself all over the court: “Santa Barbara’s knowledgeable fans hopefully appreciated the rock-star performance of our libero. She was bulletproof. She was probably the best passer and defender, and setter when it was needed.”

About his 2017 bout with colon cancer, divulged on the air by announcer Paul Sunderland during the Olympic final: “He thought it might inspire some people, but I wanted the spotlight to be on the players. I don’t feel like I did anything heroic. It was caught at an early stage, and I didn’t have any bad effects from chemotherapy. I told the team after I was clear. I wanted to show them the same me. I haven’t talked about it since that year.”

On the historical aspect of the Tokyo Games: “Volleyball was introduced [to the Olympics] here in 1964. It was the first team sport added for women, ahead of basketball and soccer.”

On the uniqueness of these Olympics, staged in an empty arena because of COVID: “The Ariake Arena is stunningly beautiful. During the matches, we did not notice the lack of fans. Our win was not tarnished in any way. We’ll forever be Olympic champions.”

On their claiming the U.S.’s 39th gold medal at Tokyo, edging the country past China’s 38 at the top of the table. “That’s icing on the cake.”

Looking ahead to Paris in 2024: “I’ve had an interest [in coaching there],” said Kiraly, now 60. “A few minutes after the Brazil match, I was thinking about who might be around. I’ll need to work things out with U.S.A. Volleyball.”

RINSE AND REPEAT:  A loss to Hungary in group play was just a ripple in the surge of the U.S. women’s water polo team to its third consecutive Olympic championship. The Americans thrashed Spain in the gold-medal match, 14-5. Santa Barbara’s Paige Hauschild, the youngest member of the squad, saw extensive action. Jamie Neushul, another first-time Olympian from Santa Barbara, did not suit up for the final but did jump into the pool to celebrate the triumph with her teammates and coaches. It was not as easy as it looked, head coach Adam Krikorian said, detailing tragedies and misfortunes that befell the team outside the pool.

A STAR WAS BORN:  Before she competed in five Olympic Games and collected a record 11 medals — capped by a gold in the 4×400 relay at Tokyo — Allyson Felix made her first splash at Carpinteria’s Russell Cup in 2000. Felix, then an L.A. Baptist High 9th-grader, was known to her friends as “Chicken Legs” because of her skinny gams but was unknown to the outside world as a neophyte track athlete. Although she raced in the frosh-soph division, Felix outperformed the varsity sprinters, and she was voted Female Athlete of the Meet. “There was some grousing from visiting coaches who thought an F-S athlete should not be eligible for the honor,” longtime Russell Cup official Joe Cantrell recalled. “Turns out we were pretty astute.”

Vashti Cunningham (of Santa Barbara High’s Cunningham Track family) finished in a tie for sixth place in the Tokyo women’s high jump. The 23-year-old topped out at 1.96 meters (6′5″) while gold medalist Mariya Lasitskene of Russia went 2.04 (6″8¼″). Lindon Victor, a decathlete from Grenada who trained with the Santa Barbara Track Club at Westmont College, finished seventh in the 10-eventer with 8,414 points. Damian Warner of Canada, who holds several Westmont track stadium records, set a new Olympic decathlon record with 9,018 points.

Despite its unfortunate timing, the Tokyo Olympics managed to deliver through its athletes an extravagant display of humans at their strongest and, perhaps more than ever, at their most vulnerable.

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