Back from the “Holy Land”

I’ve been following the volleyball career, like many players of my age, of Karch Kiraly. I shan’t bore you with the various accolades won by him over the years, but a brief synopsis goes like this: 3 Olympic Gold medals indoors and on the beach: Best Player of the Year, Best Player of the Last Century, MVP 6 times, Best Offensive Player, Best Defensive Player, Best Comeback, Sportsman of the Year etc etc and “Winningest” Player winning 148 Beach Volleyball Titles over the last 20 years or so. At 47, Karch Kiraly truly is an outstanding athlete: this weekend, in the last season of his career, losing the final of the AVP tournament in Tampa Florida. By anyone’s account: he’s rather good!

There can really only be a few other sportsmen over the years who come close to dominating his sport for so long. Actually I can’t think of any right now. So maybe he’s the best that there’s ever been.

Back in November 2006 I reached a significant birthday (let’s just say it wasn’t my 30th). My great mate, Simon Golding, who I met while training for the World Student Games back in 1988 sent me a mysterious text message: something about the fact that my present was going to be late but it had taking quite a bit of effort organising. Oh well, I thought, I can wait another few weeks for another comedy shirt designed by Simon! Little did I know what was coming my way.

I received a phone call from Simon a few days later that sounded like he was actually going to wet himself with excitement on the phone. I had to get home, he told me, to read an awesome email he had sent me. I was expecting the usual Simonesque hyperbole! He’d probably landed some deal commentating on the Siberian field-ploughing tournament. Maybe the Yorkshire annual event where earthworms are charmed out of the soil by eager participants? But not this time, Oh no: he had come up with the deal of the century, the mother-lode itself, the big kahuna (whatever that is), the whole nine yards (or is it ten?) I quote: ” …I would be glad to set up a time for Chris to drop in on training: that would be fun. We could probably play a few points at the end of the session. Karch”

Did everybody read that? Karch!!! Karch Kiraly had actually invited me to “play a few points” with him. Holy moley: I had better dig out my EVA sponsored, cropped top midriff exposed effect for the taller chap, tight red vest from 1992.

Are you having a laugh? I rang Simon up tout-de suite and asked him what silly game he was playing. Almost frothing at the mouth and hyperventilating he told me it was for real and we were going to LA for some action.

So the next few months passed slowly with me trying desperately to get into some sort of shape for California. I shall fast forward five months to approximately 7.45am on the morning of the 6th April 2007.

I was lying in my Best Western Hotel bed off Huntington Beach California struggling with my jetlag when my room phone went.

“Guess who just called me”…… It was Simon from the next room along the corridor! The words came out of his mouth staccato. Karch had rung him saying that “they” were training not 100metres from where I currently was lying in bed! “They”…….who were they? I pulled on my chosen outfit for the morning of baggy beach shorts and “cool” T shirt and almost fell out of the room, tripping over my flip-flops into the corridor to be met by Simon. Off we went to breakfast trying to focus on what was about to happen: We were going to the beach in California to meet Karch Kiraly the best volleyball player of the last century! Breakfast was weird: we were hungry but didn’t actually eat too much due to an attack of “exam tummy” as I like to call it. The beach was just over the road, so down we went to be met by the sight of 18 permanent beach volleyball courts: most of which had players running, stretching or playing. After a moment Simon said; “there he is” gesticulating towards a group of players who were well into their session. “That’s Karch, in a blue top”. We spotted Kevin Wong next him, Stein Metzger and Mike Lambert across the net! Suddenly our legs felt like jelly but the surge of adrenalin countered that and we sauntered over to their court trying not to look too excited! We sat down a few metres away from the court and watched four of the best volleyball players in the world playing right in front of us! This was insane.

Simon set up his HD video camera and I got out my stills camera and we shot away. I’ve been lucky enough to see some of the best international volleyball teams playing at the Athens Olympics, but this really was something else!

After a while the game stopped and one by one they came over! They all shook me by the hand and wished me a belated Happy Birthday. You know when you don’t know what to say: well I didn’t know what to say! “Thank You” was about all that came out.

They were happy for us to sit and watch and film away for the next hour while they trained.

After that Stein, Kevin and Mike (as we were by now on first name terms!) packed up, once again shaking us by the hand and bidding us farewell. Karch said:

“Shall we play a few points then?” Oh my word!!! How was I going to manage. Other than one session at Heyford three weeks previously, I hadn’t touched a ball on the beach for about three years. Karch had probably not had a day off in the last three years. I had already warmed up with some wobbly running on the deep Californian sand and stretched whilst watching and so was “good to go”. Simon fed a few balls over the net to me, which I passed. Karch set me the ball. (Actually I like the way that looks on my screen, I’m going to write it again!) Karch set me the ball and I whacked it. Really hard!

“Great shot Chris” Oh Yes. Come on. I was ready for the AVP tour!!!! Karch told me “Great shot Chris” A few more of these and I was staring to find my rhythm. Simon let a stray ball go Karch’s way which he passed to me, I set him and he whacked it! The next one I dared to set with my hands: “Oh I see the fingers are coming out” shouted Karch as the ball spun out off my hands!!! Memo to self: don’t do that again. Nobody uses really their fingers on the AVP tour!

A few more balls for me and it was over. We took some pictures with Karch and he was good enough to sign a book or two of mine. Karch was off to train his son’s high school team. Can you imagine the look on the face of the opposition team’s coach when he turned up in the sports hall sporting a “Team Coach” polo shirt! You’d just give up wouldn’t you?

We were left breathless and basking in the glory of ten minutes of volleyball at 8.30 in the morning in California; wondering if what had just happened had really happened!

We spent days watching Rachel Wacholder, Larry Witt, Sean Rosenthal training as well as the Russian and Austrian FIVB pairings. This really was the place to be! The rest of the six days on the beach were spent with us playing pick up games against the locals. You had to be there at 8am to get a court. We beat some decent guys and lost to some better ones! The funniest bit was losing to a 50 year old and his 61 year old partner. They were actually really good, but we did beat them the next day, so I figured we were about even. A few locals asked us later that day: “weren’t you the guys training with Karch?” I am proud to say that we were.

Was the 11 hours each way on the plane worth it? Was the return journey cramped into economy class worth it? You bet! I never felt it as I relived my moments of glory over and over in my mind.

Simon has been a great friend for a long time; we have experienced so much great and not so great volleyball together and I thank him deeply for making an almost impossible dream come true!

Thanks Si you’re a great mate. Same time and place next year?