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A U.S. women’s team win could give coach Karch Kiraly the triple crown of volleyball

U.S. volleyball coach Karch Kiraly talks to his team and points up
U.S. volleyball coach Karch Kiraly talks to his team during a match against China at the Tokyo Olympics.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Karch Kiraly did not have the patience for coaching.

Or so he thought.

He was too intense. Maniacally driven. Overly demanding.

Those qualities, and insane attention to technical detail, made him a volleyball legend.

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U.S. volleyball coach Karch Kiraly talks to his team during a match
U.S. volleyball coach Karch Kiraly talks to his team during a match against China at the Tokyo Olympics.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

As a player, he helped lead the U.S. men’s team to two Olympic gold medals. Eight years later, he won a gold medal on the beach.

He is the only person in history to win gold medals in both.

But transcendent players rarely, if ever, achieve the same level of success as coaches.

Think Magic Johnson. Wayne Gretzky. Both tried.

Neither succeeded.

Kiraly, 60, had no designs on a coaching career. But 14 years ago, he watched his son’s high school volleyball team lose every match.

“Karch,” his wife, Janna, told him, “You’ve got to help them out.”

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So, he started a training program. Nothing crazy. Focus on fundamentals.

San Juan Capistrano St. Margaret’s Episcopal opened its season. Won the first set.

“That,” he said, “got me hooked.”

The team finished third in its league. Made the playoffs. The next year it advanced to the quarterfinals. The following year the finals.

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In the fourth year, it won a Southern Section title.

The U.S. women’s volleyball team defeats Serbia in three sets and will play either South Korea or Brazil in the gold-medal match.

By that time, Kiraly also was helping the U.S. national team. Nothing formal. A way to stay involved with the program.

The U.S. men’s team won an Olympic gold medal in 2008 at Beijing. Coach Hugh McCutcheon then left to take over the women’s program. Kiraly was regarded as a possible candidate to replace him.

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McCutcheon offered Kiraly sage advice.

“I don’t think you’re ready,” he was told.

Later that year, Kiraly was at the airport. He was headed to Seattle for a clinic. He got distracted and missed his flight.

He wound up on the same flight with McCutcheon.

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“Mid-flight he turned to me,” Kiraly said. “And he says, ‘I just had a crazy idea. You want to be one of my assistants?’”

Kiraly joined McCutcheon’s staff. Learned things he never paid attention to as a player. Helped the U.S. team to a silver medal at the 2012 Olympics in London.

In 1980, the U.S. women’s volleyball team was poised to win gold before politics got in the way. This year’s U.S. squad wants to build on that legacy.

After the Games, McCutcheon left to become coach at Minnesota.

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This time, Kiraly was ready. He was elevated to head coach.

The U.S. women’s program is among the world’s best. It played in three Olympic finals. But it never won a gold medal.

Kiraly wants to change that.

“I’m really about trying to help this program get to accomplish something and make history,” he said.

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Kiraly had experience in that regard. In 1984, he starred as the United States won its first gold medal in volleyball. The celebration lasted for weeks.

“We felt like we were walking around and not even touching the ground,” he said.

But the Soviet Union had boycotted the Los Angeles Games. So did Poland and Cuba. Kiraly and his teammates stayed for another Olympic cycle.

Four years later, they again won gold. This time against a stronger field.

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Being partners in beach volleyball means you’re probably going to go through a breakup. The sport’s up-and-down nature leads to a lot of turnover.

In 1996, Kiraly teamed with Kent Steffes in the inaugural Olympic beach volleyball tournament. They defeated another American team, Mike Dodd and Mike Whitmarsh, for the gold medal.

U.S. women players know Kiraly’s history.

Justine Wong-Orantes was a top youth beach player. She and her partner often watched Kiraly practice and play on the sand. They asked if they could take a picture with him.

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Fifteen years later, Wong-Orantes is the U.S. libero. Kiraly is her coach.

“It’s really cool to just pick his brain and learn from him,” she said.

Outside hitter Jordan Larson joined the national team program in 2009. Kiraly was a first-year assistant. Larson asked him questions then. She still asks them now.

“Sometimes he shies away from telling us a lot of stories,” she says, “just because he’s very selfless himself, and very humble.”

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U.S. volleyball coach Karch Kiraly talks to his team
U.S. volleyball coach Karch Kiraly talks to his team during the Tokyo Olympics.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Kiraly offers another reason.

“I want it to be about them,” he said, “and not me.”

In the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games, the U.S. women lost in the semifinals. They took home a bronze medal.

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Now they have another chance to win gold.

On Sunday, the U.S. plays Brazil in the gold-medal match.

A win would add to Kiraly’s legacy. The only person to win gold as an indoor player, beach player and coach. A triple crown of sorts.

Kiraly hungers for something else. Something that required patience.

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“Help this program stand at the top of the podium,” he said.


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