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Karch Kiraly bringing Corona Wide Open to North Avenue Beach

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corona-wide-open-chicago.jpgNorth Avenue Beach will be flooded with more volleyball than usual this weekend, as the Corona Wide Open rolls into Chicago. While the AVP tour allows only the cream of the volleyball crop to showcase their talent, Corona Wide Open founder and volleyball legend Karch Kiraly found a void when it came to giving "the other 99.9 percent of the players around the country" a chance to compete.

Chicago is the seventh stop on the eight-city tour, and offers a chance for volleyball enthusiasts at a variety of skill levels with men's, women's and co-ed 2-on-2 or 4-on-4 teams. There's still plenty of time to register before the Friday @ 5 p.m. deadline. And the best part -- winners are going to the U.S. Open of Beach Volleyball, all expenses paid.

In honor of this weekend's event, we caught up with the 48-year-old Kiraly to talk Chicago volleyball and what it's like to be the "Michael Jordan" of your chosen profession:
karch-kiraly-volleyball-chicago.JPGSports Pros(e): You've been called the Michael Jordan of volleyball. Here in Chicago, if you're called the Michael Jordan of anything, it carries a ton of weight. Have you heard this distinction? What are your thoughts on it?
Karch Kiraly: Michael was definitely a one-of-a-kind athlete. It's certainly a great compliment that I don't' take too seriously. But if my name is mentioned in the same breath as his, that's awesome stuff.

Sports Pros(e): Why did you want to start the Corona Wide Open?

Karch Kiraly: First, it's a way of remembering the heritage and the roots of where this game of beach volleyball came from, which really started as very much of a lifestyle thing. Lifeguards and surfers and anybody else who happened to be hanging out at the beach in the summertime just enjoying what that means. And hat means beautiful summer weather, which we luckily now have coming to Chicago. It means people who are very active and generally in good condition. It means trunks and bikinis and sexy people and fun. It's kind of like when you think back to when you were in high school and my favorite time of year was the summer time. It was just the freedom of getting out and jumping in the ocean and having fun. All of that put together is a lot of the heritage and the lifestyle and roots of beach volleyball.  

If the X-Games had come along much earlier, sometime in the early 80s, I'd imagine beach volleyball would have been one of the premiere sports featured. Now, we have to keep pushing the envelope. Beach volleyball is not nearly death defying enough to reward inclusion in the X-Games anymore. But it's really one of the original X-Games sports with the vibe and everything. I think sometimes as the professional side of the tour has evolved, it's become just a sport and lost a little of its historical roots.

The other side of this is that there is a professional tour in the United States that's doing well and provides opportunities for maybe, at most, the top 32 teams in the country. It provides a venue for them to play and try to earn prize money and maybe earn enough to support themselves through volleyball. But that's strictly true for very few athletes. In the meantime, I know there are hundreds of thousands of very passionate beach volleyball players all around the country -- many of whom you can see on any given weekend in Chicago. Chicagoans love their summers and love the whole North Avenue Beach scene. When you do get the good weather, boy do Chicagoans love to take advantage of it.

Sports Pros(e): We do tend to flock there when it's nice.

Karch Kiraly: Oh yeah -- it's awesome.

So my thought is, yes -- the top of the pyramid is getting a venue and an opportunity to play a lot, but what about the other 99.9 percent of the players around the country. That's where the Corona Wide Open fits in.

This weekend, in up to eight divisions you can play 2-on-2volleyball whether you're male or female, or even mixed, play in the open division which is the highest on down to novice. By winning the event this weekend you actually would qualify and would earn a top-eight seed at the U.S. Open of Beach Volleyball in late September and earn an all-expense paid trip there. No matter what your skill level, this tour gives players from all over the country the opportunity to become a national champion in their age skill level.

Part of my great passion growing up playing is looking forward so much to the weekend tournaments where my dad and I would hop in the car and drive a few hours and play a few hours all-day on a Saturday or Sunday playing in novice and B tournaments. I couldn't get enough of playing. I was so hooked on the game. This is where the other side of it comes in. Not only being true to the lifestyle and the vibe of beach volleyball, but providing opportunities for the whole rest of the pyramid below the pros like Phil Dalhausser and Kerri Walsh.

Sports Pros(e): Will you be here in Chicago this weekend?

Karch Kiraly: I am. I'm coming in Friday morning and I'm going to be there Friday and Saturday.

Sports Pros(e): Will you be playing at all?

Karch Kiraly: I may informally step in and play a bit. I did that about a week and a half ago at the Corona Wide Open in Santa Monica. Brian Lewis and I snuck in with a number of four on four teams and had a great time with everybody. It's a little harder to do in a 2-on-2 tournament.

Sports Pros(e): Any particular fond memories of playing on North Beach here?
Karch Kiraly: The biggest was when I was playing with my partner at the time, Adam Johnson, and got to become the all-time leading title winner and won title No. 140 right there on North Avenue Beach. I don't know if I could have picked a better spot.

Sports Pros(e): What makes Chicago a good volleyball town?

Karch Kiraly: Part of it is that everybody so appreciates the summer there. People of Chicago so appreciate when good volleyball comes into town because it only comes in once a year. Southern Californians are often a little spoiled in that sense. They can walk down to the beach almost any day of the year and find one of the top players in the world training somewhere. It doesn't happen so much in Chicago, so there's a real excitement with the people of Chicago when the pro tour comes into town and when the Corona Wide Open comes to town.

Sports Pros(e): How long have you wanted to start something like the Corona Wide Open?

Karch Kiraly:  I think it was a good number of years -- especially when the sport was included in the Olympics, which is a really nice thing, in 1996. But upon its inclusion in the Olympics, that means going to a whole new level of, I guess, more of a stick-and-ball sport. My concern as the sport grew is, I sure hope we don't go to too many non-beaches and sites around the world tour and the American tour. The sites that did not go to beaches got to be pretty darn high -- playing in parking lots where sand was dumped down. My worry was, Were we losing some of the flavor and the history of the game?

Sports Pros(e): Has the sport made any improvement in that area?

Karch Kiraly: I think the American tour is doing a better job of trying to be on the beach more. The international tour is almost strictly not a beach tour anymore: Downtown Berlin. Up in the mountains in Switzerland. Playing in Marseille in a grass park. There are a number of land-locked sites that are nowhere near the beach. Again, part of the appeal of playing beach volleyball is having a body of water there and being at some of the most picturesque places in the world.

karch-kiraly-usa-volleyball.JPGSports Pros(e): Looking over your list of accomplishments in the sport, it's a bit overwhelming. Which of your accomplishments would you say you're most proud of?

Karch Kiraly: It's hard to say. Certainly, one of the things I'm very proud of is getting the opportunity to play on three teams that turned out to be the best in the world at just the right time. A lot of that was hard work and preparation, but it takes a lot of luck, too. But to win three Olympic gold medals -- twice indoors and once on the beach -- were special moments.

I've gotten to do so many things and go so many places and play the game I love to play for so long that it's pretty hard to pick anything that stands out above the rest because I just consider myself so lucky to get to do that for so long. And here I am, still making my living by staying involved in the sport I love.

Sports Pros(e): Plus, if nothing else, you can say you spent your career on the beach instead of an office -- that's not a bad thing to look back on.

Karch Kiraly: Oh yeah ... that's about the best job I could imagine. I know there are some golfers who would disagree with me, but my favorite place, far more than any golf course, is a beautiful beach with a ball and a net and some fellow passionate beach volleyballers to share it with -- and that's what I'm going to get to do this weekend.

Sports Pros(e): Speaking of which, you must have gone through gallons of sunscreen in your career.

Karch Kiraly: I wish it had been around when I was growing up. There was no such thing as sunscreen. That's probably the one down side of this passion I have and that career is a greater risk and concern about skin cancer. To me, it's a small price to pay for all the great times and great friends I've made.

Sports Pros(e): Talk about the toll that the sport took on your body -- any residual effects you're feeling today?

Karch Kiraly: I certainly was feeling a lot at the end of my competitive career, which was two years ago. Even with that, my partner that year, Kevin Wong, and I had some great finishes. We were very proud to have beaten the eventual best team in the world and eventual gold medalists, Phil Dalhausser and Todd Rogers, on the way to making a final in Florida. I was going through a great deal of pain. I was calculating it out -- it was typically over 320 times a weekend I was jumping a max jump as hard as I could because as a 46-year-old all the teams were going at me. In two-on-two volleyball, you can dictate what the other team is doing ... they could make me carry all the offensive load by serving the ball to me.

Not training at the level I used to and not competing at the level I used to has definitely been very nice on my body. But I still love to play and I still do play. It's just nice not to have to compete against the Phil Dalhaussers of the world.

Sports Pros(e): How did you start wearing your signature pink hat on the beach?

Karch Kiraly: It began around 1992 I was playing with Kent Steffes and I had a number of hat colors at the time that my hat sponsor had given me to wear. Those were the days when the bright neon colors were still en vogue. They sent me a black hat and I felt like I was frying my brain. Then I think it was optic yellow, lime green and hot pink. One weekend I tried the pink and we played a really good tournament and won. I figured maybe it was a good luck thing, so I did it again and we ended up winning 13 tournaments in a row, tying the all-time mark which stood at that time -- which has since been smashed by Misty May and Kerri Walsh. But when we went on that roll, it started as a superstition and then became a tradition -- or a sign of stupidity, because none of the other guys on the tour had enough nerve to wear a hot pink hat. Eventually it just kind of became my trademark. At the end of my career I don't think I could have changed colors if I wanted to. Plus, it made it very easy for my family to find me at tournaments.

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Kudos to Karchy for all he's done to promote the sport during his star-studded career, and now in retirement. For the inside scoop on the AVP Pro Beach VB tour and Kiraly's involvement, check out the new book "Order On The Court"!

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This page contains a single entry by Kevin Allen published on July 22, 2009 11:40 AM.

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