When you're considered the best volleyball player in the world, as Karch Kiraly is, there is little reason to get nervous before a match.
His presence adds an aura to a United States team that has won the Olympic, World Cup and World Championship titles in the past three years. If any one player is to take credit for that Triple Crown, it is Kiraly, a former All-American at UCLA.
Yet on Monday night before the United States was to play Argentina for an automatic spot in the semifinals of the Pan American Games, Kiraly felt his stomach turn.
"I was real apprehensive," Kiraly said. "Usually I'm not like that before a match but I really felt the butterflies."
Kiraly was nervous because he was about to move to the front line for the first time since he broke a bone in left hand almost five weeks ago. Kiraly, 26, remained cautious in the first week of the tournament, playing sparingly in the back line, waiting for the time to be right for a true test.
"I made up my mind two days ago that this would be it," Kiraly said. "The match was too important."
Already defeated by Brazil, another loss might have forced the United States to have to beat Cuba Wednesday to earn a spot in the semifinals. But with Kiraly back on the front line, it didn't take long to wash away those fears.
The United States jumped on Argentina (2-2) quickly, holding it to 13 points in the first two games in rolling to a 15-5, 15-8, 15-11 victory at Hinkle Fieldhouse on the Butler University campus.
The victory means only the semifinal seeding will be at stake Wednesday when the United States (3-1) and Cuba (4-0) complete round-robin play.
"Having Karch back made all the difference," said setter Jeff Stork, a former All-American at Pepperdine. "With Karch in there, we pass better; we move the ball around so much better; you can tell he's back."
Kiraly's 13 kills tied with him with Craig Buck for second on the team. Steve Timmons, a former All-American at USC, led the United States with 20.
Kiraly said it was the U.S. loss to Brazil in the opening game last Tuesday, and how that endangered the team's gold medal chances that helped accelerate his full return. He played in only three games in the five-game loss, but he has gradually worked his way back into the swing of the U.S. lineup. He has done so despite playing with the middle and ring fingers of his left hand taped together.
"There's no pain," he said. "But I'm not able to do everything I would like to. There were some balls today that I just couldn't hit the way I would like. I missed some shots I normally would make."
Kiraly injured the hand in practice July 15. The hand was placed in a splint, and Kiraly was unsure how ready he would be for this tournament. But Kiraly said he was determined to play. With the Cuba, Argentina, Brazil and the United States entered in the six-team field, only the Soviet Union and China are missing from the world's top six teams.
"This is our most important competition of the year," he said. "I didn't want to miss it. I'm know I'm taking a risk in playing, but it's not a career-threatening type risk. I'm just taking the chance that I will setback my recovery.
"When the doctors said the worst that could happen would be that it would take a little longer for a complete recovery, I figured I might as well play."
With Kiraly back in front, the match was hardly in doubt, although the United States did trail, 9-6, in the third game before rallying behind Kiraly. Kiraly served an ace to tie the game, 10-10, and made a great save to keep a point alive.
Still, Kiraly said the tape on his fingers prevents him from setting the ball as effectively as he would prefer, although most of the other elements of his game remain strong. He attributed his rapid recovery to his decision to frequently remove the splint on his hand.
"By moving my hand more that helped to calcify the bones," he said. "It made the bone stronger, quicker. If I left it on, I might not be playing now like I am."