Mike Whitmarsh dies at 46; Olympic medalist in beach volleyball

Mike Whitmarsh, an Olympic silver medalist in beach volleyball and a star on the professional tour for 15 seasons, was found dead Tuesday morning in the garage of a friend’s home in Solana Beach. He was 46.

The San Diego County medical examiner Wednesday afternoon listed the death as suicide from inhalation of carbon monoxide from car exhaust. Whitmarsh lived with his family in San Diego but occasionally stayed with the friend, the medical examiner said.

Whitmarsh was a basketball standout in high school, in community college and at the University of San Diego, where he led the Toreros to a West Coast Conference championship in 1984 and was an honorable mention All-American.

He played professionally in Europe for three seasons, was drafted by the Portland Trail Blazers of the National Basketball Assn. and later narrowly missed making the squad with the Minnesota Timberwolves.

It was in two-man beach volleyball that the 6-foot-7 Whitmarsh gained his greatest acclaim. He won 28 tournaments on the Los Angeles-based Assn. of Volleyball Professionals tour and competed into his 40s in a sport that favors the young and lithe. He was a crowd favorite and displayed a flourish in dramatically blocking an opponent’s shot high over the net.

Slowed by injuries, he retired after the 2004 season. With $1.6 million in earnings, he is listed as the ninth-highest money-winner in the tour’s history.

“We are all deeply saddened by the loss of Mike Whitmarsh, a true beach volleyball legend,” said Leonard Armato, the volleyball association’s chief executive officer and commissioner.

Whitmarsh was rookie of the year in 1990 -- an accomplishment made more remarkable because he had taken to volleyball only in his mid-20s. Whitmarsh and Assn. of Volleyball Professionals teammate Mike Dodd won the silver medal at the Summer Games in Atlanta in 1996, the first time the sport had been part of the Olympics.

“He changed the game at the net, he was so big and so fast,” said Chris McGee, longtime announcer for the association. “He was the complete competitor, whether it was playing cards or watching a game on TV, or golf or tennis. He was always doing something.”

Michael John Whitmarsh was born in San Diego on May 18, 1962. He attended Grossmont College in El Cajon before enrolling at the University of San Diego. He received a degree in political science in 1985 and was listed as an Academic All-American.

Whitmarsh liked to tell how he turned to volleyball as a consolation after being cut in the last round of tryouts by the Timberwolves. At first, he would say, he was a terrible volleyball player. But he went to Australia and, with the determination that became his trademark, learned the fundamentals of the game: serving, blocking and spiking.

On the tour, Whitmarsh and Karch Kiraly made a running joke of their ages. Kiraly, along with playing partner Kent Steffes, had bested Whitmarsh and Dodd for the gold medal in Atlanta.

“Whitmarsh and I are like shepherds protecting our flock,” Kiraly, one year older than Whitmarsh, told a reporter in 2003. “The younger wolves are getting tougher and tougher.”

After leaving the volleyball tour, Whitmarsh worked in real estate in San Diego County. Survivors include his wife, Cindy, a fitness and nutritional expert; and their two daughters. Whitmarsh had attributed his longevity as an athlete to his wife’s advice to eat better and avoid weight gain.