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Don’t tell him this is a young man’s game

Times Staff Writer

TO anyone unfamiliar with his sport, Karch Kiraly’s victory at the Huntington Beach Assn. of Volleyball Professionals tournament this summer over the best players in the country might have stirred a Roger Clemens moment. Kiraly is, after all, 44, turning 45 in November.

But to understand the significance of his victory, picture this: Lance Armstrong winning another Tour de France -- in 11 years. Andre Agassi winning a major -- in nine. Jerry Rice not retiring and making a Pro Bowl appearance -- in two. They are among the best in their sports, and they have all defied age. But not yet like this.

Live to 115 and the world wants to know how you do it. Be a top athlete at a late age and there’s a similar curiosity, mixed with an almost vulture-like anticipation of the end.

Kiraly’s longevity is a powerful convergence of nature and nurture, with the eleventh-hour appearance of a new friend. About three years ago, Orange County-based trainer-coach Mike Rangel was convinced he had a program that would benefit the beach legend. It was based on a Soviet regimen from the 1970s that had been giving track and volleyball teams a noticeable edge; it focused on the eccentric muscle development that is responsible for the legs’ explosiveness in pushing off or jumping. Called plyometrics, it had been adapted by Rangel to train his son Steffin and other young athletes.

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Kiraly had already been subjected to punishing “jump training,” as plyometrics was called then, while preparing for the 1984 Olympics under coach Doug Beal, leaping over lines of chairs and jumping on and off a 3-foot-high box. In his 1999 how-to book on beach volleyball, Kiraly touts a kinder, gentler regimen of plyometrics developed by a San Diego trainer. But it still looks like Russian factory calisthenics compared with the balletic moves that Rangel has put together.

“It’s harder to improve once you’re in your 40s. I was looking for something new and fresh,” says volleyball’s most decorated player. Rangel’s plyometrics “improved my explosiveness, my quickness in covering the court.”

Aging baby boomers can certainly look to Kiraly’s longevity for lessons in their own face-off with aging. For every hour Kiraly competes on the court, there’s an hour of stretching or plyometric training -- “money in the bank,” as Rangel puts it -- that Kiraly draws from. And while the weekend warrior would like to think that just staying in the game is enough, sometimes staying in the game means learning a program to develop strength and flexibility, the best preventive against injury.

But as well as Kiraly trains, he owes a lot to the fact that beach volleyball gave him the chance to get off the hardwood floors. James Worthy might still be playing today, “but you can’t bounce a basketball on the sand,” says Bill Stetson, an orthopedic surgeon who competed with Kiraly on a team that won the Junior Olympics in 1978. Spared the articular cartilage deterioration that comes with a gym sport, Kiraly nevertheless represents the maturation of volleyball, says Stetson, in which “instead of playing for eight hours like we used to, now they’re training for two hours and playing less.”

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How much is good genes is up for debate, although “I remember Karch having these amazing calves even as a teenager,” says Rangel, who played for Cal State Long Beach in the mid-1970s and was noticing this promising kid from Santa Barbara at the beach tournaments.

“Karch had the strongest legs in volleyball,” says Marv Dunphy, coach of the Pepperdine men’s volleyball team, this year’s national champion.

In 1988, Dunphy was head coach when Kiraly and his teammates took Olympic gold in Seoul. Even then, it was about the legs: At 6-foot-2, Kiraly was small for international volleyball, but he made all the difference when it came to beating the big, bad Soviets.

The Soviet Union. Wasn’t that a long time ago?

Winning secret: flexibility

Kiraly’s current partner on the AVP tour, Hawaii-born Mike Lambert, was 11 when a Kiraly-led national team erased the disappointment of not facing the Soviets in the boycotted ’84 Olympics, beating them to win the World Cup in 1985. Lambert was 12 when they smacked the Soviets again in 1986 at the world championships.

But on this late summer morning in Huntington Beach, the man who remembers pre-perestroika Moscow is having no trouble keeping up with the one who doesn’t. Even Kiraly’s footwork is snappier than his 6-foot-6 partner’s. Rangel is leading the pair through a 45-minute program of short hops, dips, jumps and crunches that looks graceful despite the 20-pound medicine balls they cradle in their arms. “If he moves this quickly with the ball, imagine what he can do without it,” says Rangel. It is a workout Kiraly and Lambert perform twice a week for nine months of the year and once a week for the other three.

Rangel knew when he first approached Kiraly that the workout had to be pragmatic as well as challenging, mimicking the moves of a tournament player and even the tempo of the game. The exercises are punctuated by 10-second breaks, roughly the time that elapses from the end of a play to the next serve. Rangel times how quickly Kiraly does each exercise; Kiraly, ever the competitor, loves working against the clock.

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While the beach is a more forgiving playing field, it is still a tough master. The unevenness of the surface is a constant, subtle challenge to the body’s sense of balance, like moving on the deck of a boat. Now try to jump. There isn’t the momentum that comes from running across a firm surface. You are, essentially, leaping from a standstill. Now crouch and spring high enough to get your shoulders over the top of an 8-foot-high net, where a powerful arm swing can send the ball rocketing 50-plus miles an hour in a second.

The defender on the ground, meanwhile, has about that much time to assess the direction of the set and what the hitter’s body is telling him and push off that shifty surface quickly enough to reach where the ball will land.

As he was making the transition to the sand game in his early 30s, Kiraly says, he saw the potential for a long career, but not if he kept training the way he had indoors. “I saw other players getting close to it, and I thought I could do it if I trained right,” he says.

Flexibility was key. “When I was with the national team, I couldn’t even touch my toes,” he says. So he signed up with Adrian Crook, a Santa Monica native and career firefighter who had come up with a stretching program called Inflex. Crook credits work with a Chinese kung fu master in the 1970s for his regimen, which focuses on stretches that increase flexibility -- think splits and toe-touching -- for greater range of motion. He’s trained scores of athletes in the method, and Kiraly is still doing a 20-minute Inflex routine almost daily, 12 years later.

When it comes to sticking with a program, Kiraly is in a league of his own.

“You always knew he was something special,” says Stetson, a standout collegiate player himself at USC in the early ‘80s and now an associate clinical professor in orthopedic surgery at the medical school there. “He had focus and determination and an incredible work ethic.

“We were all intense,” the surgeon adds, “but Karch took it to another level.”

Robotic control

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Karch Kiraly’s national team colleagues called him Mr. Computer, his focus so linear that at times he seemed robotic. Olympic gold medalist Bob Ctvrtlik “told me that he played with Karch eight years and he still feels like he doesn’t know him well,” Rangel says. Indeed, in those halcyon years on the beach tour, when Kiraly and then-partner Kent Steffes were unbeatable, their relationship was so businesslike they might as well have been wearing suits and swinging briefcases.

Where his father, Laszlo Kiraly, who had played on the Hungarian national team, was a ferocious, volatile and sarcastic competitor, Karch was intense and controlled.

He was also, by all accounts, fox smart. He and his dad began entering beach tournaments when Karch was 11, and the young player quickly figured out “how he could control the emotions of his opponents,” says Rangel. The adult players were losing it over losing to a child, “getting angry, and he was capitalizing on it,” Rangel says.

In interviews, Kiraly is deliberate. In goes the question and out comes the carefully analyzed answer. He has long been a no-nonsense manager. When one of his wife Janna’s horses became fearful of jumping, he impatiently suggested they get rid of it. He home-schooled his two sons, Kristian and Kory, for five years. He taught math, science and composition, and Janna taught the rest.

So as a more emotional Kiraly emerged, one who was openly elated at his partner’s play, pronouncing the victories “sweeter because they come less often,” a shift could be felt in the axis of planet Kiraly.

Even as Kiraly and Lambert lost in the finals in Chicago (a 44-year-old in the finals!), and the veteran was being asked in the postgame interview about Lambert’s dropping him for a new partner in time to qualify for the Beijing Olympics, Kiraly was all smiles. It would be good for Lambert. It would be good for the sport. It was like the aging Agassi winning the match of his life against James Blake at the U.S. Open and declaring, “I wasn’t the winner. Tennis was the winner.”

But here’s what Kiraly didn’t say: He’s looking at new partners, among them college phenom Sean Rooney from Pepperdine. Oh, he plans to keep winning.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Getting the jump on elite training

Plyometrics owes its origins to the Soviet Union, which by the early 1970s had devised a crude training method of hops and skips with athletes holding bags of sand or tree stumps or jumping over logs to get exotic results. It owes it name -- derived from Latin for “measured increases” -- to American Fred Wilt, a legendary distance runner.

Plyometrics focuses on eccentric as opposed to concentric muscle development. Think of a rubber band and its ability to snap back. This “elastic” energy is what gives athletes explosiveness in pushing off and jumping, and so it is critical to such sports as basketball, volleyball, tennis, soccer and track and field.

Orange County is home of the largest plyometric program in the country, PlyoCity, run by Mike Rangel. Training is done primarily at the American Sports Centers in Anaheim, which has 22 volleyball courts, 16 basketball courts and nine indoor soccer arenas. Rangel tailors the workouts to the participants.

At PlyoCity, Rangel trains athletes from ages “8 to 58" but focuses on the younger set, going into high schools to train entire teams. He’s worked with a lot of parents too, he says, “but there are a few movements we don’t like people over 40 to do.” The hops, skips, jumps and dips that make up a plyometric workout might look easy, but they’re deceptively tough, which is why they can bring about a significant improvement in conditioning without injury. At advanced levels, however, plyometrics should be paired with weight and flexibility training for the best results and to prevent injury.

For more on plyometrics:

* Rangel offers programs of twice-weekly 45-minute workouts at PlyoCity ranging from $89 to $150 a month.

Call (949) 206-2441 or go to www.plyocity.com.

* “Jumping Into Plyometrics,” by Donald A. Chu (Human Kinetics Publishers, 1998)

* “High-Powered Plyometrics,” by James C. Radcliffe and Robert C. Farentinos (Human Kinetics Publishers, 1999)

* Some personal trainers and exercise physiologists recommend plyometrics for such sports as basketball and skiing. But some fitness experts warn they can be unsafe. Ask your trainer if this should be part of your program.

-- Ann Herold


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