Who is Karch Kiraly? The Most Decorated Men’s Volleyball Player of All Time
Karch Kiraly is arguably the best men’s volleyball player of all time…
...on the court and the beach.
As the first and only person to win Olympic Gold in both indoor and beach volleyball, it’s difficult to select his most astounding achievement in the sport.
Kiraly has been a model athlete, coach, and leader, offering many lessons for young volleyball players and non-players alike.
Let’s look at the story of Charles “Karch” Kiraly and how his skill on the volleyball court turned into a life of success and leadership.
Early Life and a Foray into High-Level Volleyball
It is no secret that the beach communities on the West coast of the United States are a breeding ground for high-quality volleyball players.
Charles Kiraly was born in the laid-back town of Santa Barbara, California on November 3, 1960.
The Kiraly family was no stranger to the sport of volleyball.
Dr. Laszlo Kiraly, Karch’s father, was a member of the Hungarian Junior National volleyball team before fleeing the country in the late 1950s.
This exodus may have been fortuitous as it led to Karch being raised in an environment fertile for volleyball development.
Karch and his dad paired up to enter a beach tournament, marking his first foray into “real” competition.
At age 11, Karch Kiraly already had a feeling volleyball was the sport for him.
The confidence boost he received as a youngster boosted a quick progression into high-level play.
He would quickly become an AAA-rated player by 17 years of age.
People automatically assume that a guy who excels in beach volleyball might share the same generalized attributes of a “California surfer dude.”
Karch Kiraly does not fit that generalized stereotype at all.
He entered UCLA in 1978 with the ambition to study biochemistry.
Fast forward several years and he would graduate cum laude with a BS in biochemistry with a 3.5 GPA.
Not bad for a beach bum volleyball guy!
Importantly, Kiraly’s career began to take off as he was at UCLA in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Karch played setter and outside hitter, as the Bruins ran a 6-2 offense.
This allowed him to play both positions opposite Sinjin Smith (who would play an integral role in Kiraly’s future volleyball excellence, as well).
As a freshman, Kiraly and his UCLA teammates won the NCAA Men’s Volleyball Championship.
In year two, as a sophomore, the Bruins would lose after making it to the championship again.
Year three brought yet another chance to claim the top spot in the United States, and Kiraly capitalized.
His fourth and final year was another NCAA Championship and Karch Kiraly would be part of a championship round team and win NCAA Championships three out of four years at UCLA.
Karch Kiraly was inarguably dominant, as his UCLA teams were undefeated twice, NCAA Champions three times. He was honored as an All-American player all four collegiate years and was the NCAA tournament MVP in his junior and senior years.
In 1992, Karch Kiraly was inducted into the UCLA Hall of Fame for obvious reasons.
He was honored once more in 1993 by having his volleyball jersey retired.
Karch Kiraly Joins the US National Team
After dominating the collegiate competition, Karch Kiraly would find another way to amaze the volleyball world.
He and fellow national team member Aldis Berzins would be part of an emerging serve receive strategy.
Kiraly made the US National Team in 1981 and continued with them through the Olympics in 1988.
During his time with the team, Karch helped them win Olympic gold in 1984, back to back FIVB World Cup championships in 1985 and 1986, and then another Olympic gold in 1988.
As an Olympian, Karch Kiraly went from being the youngest team member in 1984 to becoming a captain during the team’s run to its second gold.
His prolific career chugged forward as Kiraly was named the world’s best player in 1986 and 1988.
While Karch’s personal accomplishments were no less than amazing, his impact on the game itself should not be missed.
During his time with the national team, the two-man serve receive became a viable option.
Kiraly and Aldis Berzins formed a receiving tandem, with each player covering half the court. This freed up the remainder of the squad to deploy a devastating offensive attack.
Kiraly’s excellent passing and high-quality outside hitting were invaluable to the success of the US National Team during his tenure.
A True Professional
It seems impossible to think that a period of Karch Kiraly’s career would go unnoticed.
However, his time with the Italian pro volleyball club Il Messaggero Ravenna is oft forgotten.
His dominance was realized as he played in the league for two years.
During the time between 1990 to 1992, Kiraly helped the professional Italian team to the Italian Volleyball League championship, the Italian Cup, the FIVB Volleyball Club World Championship, the CEV Champions League championship, and the European Supercup.
Time to Hit the Beach
Kiraly dabbled in beach volleyball ever since that first tournament with his dad at 11 years old.
He decided to leave the indoor game (as a player) entirely in 1992.
It’s hard to imagine but Karch Kiraly would leave an impeccable indoor career behind and become the winningest player ever to play beach volleyball.
Kiraly and Steffes (Kent Steffes) became the most dominant partners on the Association of Volleyball Players’ (AVP) tour.
Kiraly and Steffes won the Olympic gold in 1996, the first medal to be handed out for beach volleyball in Olympic history.
110 of Kiraly’s impressive 148 AVP titles came with Steffes.
Karch Kiraly competed on the beach through the 2007 season and well into his 40s.
He made the finals of his AVP tournament entries at a rate of 80%.
His last tournament victory occurred in 2005.
His skills as a passer, hitter, and teammate would result in over USD 3 million.
Leaving a Legacy
Kiraly himself might argue that his best achievements had nothing to do with his time on the court or the beach.
He had the opportunity to coach his two sons, Kristian and Kory Kiraly, during their high school career.
Kiraly would then be hired as an assistant coach on the women’s US National Volleyball team.
The team won an Olympic silver in 2012.
The same year, Kiraly would be offered the opportunity to be the head coach of the same team.
His leadership as a head coach would help the women’s team beat China in the 2014 FIVB World Championship.
Kiraly would then lead the team to win the 2016 Olympic gold medal in Brazil, making him the fourth person to win a World Championship and Olympic gold as player and coach.
Kiraly comes from the Hungarian language and means king.
There may be no more fitting name for the true king of volleyball.
His legacy as a player is unlikely to be matched but his prowess as a coach is leading to the development of other talented players.
Charles Karch Kiraly was inducted into the UCLA Hall of Fame, the Volleyball Hall of Fame, and the American Volleyball Coaches Hall of Fame.
Despite those admirable honors, his brightest achievements thus far are the thousands of volleyball players and coaches he has inspired over his 30-plus year career.
Full Listing of Awards, Achievements, and Significant Victories
Gold Medals: 1984 Olympics, 1986 FIVB World Champs, 1988 Olympics, 1996 Olympics, 2014 FIVB World Champs (coach), 2016 Olympics (coach)
FIVB Best Player in the World: 1986, 1988
AVP Best Offensive Player: 1990, 1993, 1994
AVP Best Defensive Player: 2002
AVP Most Valuable Player: 1990, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1998