Volleyball legend Karch Kiraly fondly recalls partnering with his father, Laszlo, a one-time member of the Hungarian national team, on a picture-postcard strand in Corona del Mar, Calif., for his first beach tournament.
"I loved every minute of it," Kiraly said.
That despite the brevity of his day.
The father-and-son team lost two straight hard-fought matches, or, as the somewhat dubious saying among the sport's enthusiasts go, "One, two, barbecue."
But then, the younger Kiraly was all of 11 years old.
"It was amazing to look across the net and see grown men and the panic in their eyes that they were close to losing to a kid," said Kiraly (pronounced Kuh-RYE), now 49, who didn't lose often as he went on to win three Olympic gold medals during his famed career (indoor volleyball in 1984 and '88, then beach at the 1996 Games). "It was a very empowering moment for me."
For Kiraly, it couldn't get better than to be on a beach with the endless blue water serving as a breathtaking backdrop. It couldn't get better than the challenge posed by two-on-two play against rivals of similar ability, if not age.
"That," he said of his debut some 38 years ago, "was when my passion was ignited."
And it's still burning.
Kiraly, who stopped competing in 2007, helped create and launch the Corona Light Wide Open, a 2-year-old tournament played at beaches in nine cities, including for the first time Siesta Key, near Sarasota, this weekend. Hundreds of teams are expected to compete in 17 divisions, with the winners in the two-player divisions earning a berth in the U.S. Open of Beach Volleyball at the sport's mecca, Manhattan Beach, Calif., in September.
Over the years, Kiraly, the chief volleyball officer for the fledgling nationwide event as well as a coach with the U.S. women's indoor team, saw an increasing number of beach volleyball tournaments held on parking lots covered with mounds of trucked-in sand and surrounded by steel and concrete structures.
That might allow an event to be held anywhere, but to Kiraly it struck a blow to the "soul" of his sport.
"(I want) to help the sport stay true to its roots," he said. "When three-quarters of the tournaments were being held in parking lots and other artificial locations, that was a growing frustration for me as someone who grew up playing beach volleyball and idolizing the guys who came before me and knowing the history of the sport."
But Kiraly wanted to do more than return events to a proper setting. Unlike the old days, tournaments have focused almost exclusively of late on the best male and female players, phasing out the opportunity for the masses to compete as he did as a teen.
That irritated him like, well, so much sand in his suit.
"I played with my dad until I was 15," he said. "We were novice players, but we slowly worked our way up. I'll never forget the day I got my B ranking and my A ranking … and (having) that sense of, 'I got better. I accomplished something I've never done before.' "
He hopes this tournament can do that for others of any age and ability. And in another move to recognize beach volleyball's roots, the Corona Light Wide Open follows some traditional rules, including:
• The court is back to 30 by 30 feet on each side of the net, not 26 feet, 3 inches by 26 feet, 3 inches, which put a premium on Dwight Howard-sized blockers;
• Instead of using rally scoring (every serve means a point for one of the teams), as has been the norm for nearly a decade, this tournament returns to sideout scoring (a team can score only when it serves).
"I actually prefer the old-school (game) with the bigger court and the sideout scoring," said Alex Sevillano, 29, a former standout player at Clearwater High and Florida State who finished third last month in the women's open division at the Corona Light event in Fort Lauderdale. "I almost forgot what (sideout scoring) was like. In our first match, we were down 14-8, and we came back and won 16-14. That never happens in rally."
Though she's busy as a prosecutor in the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office, Sevillano rediscovered her passion for the sport and plans to compete this weekend.
"I like what Karch is doing," Sevillano said. "You can't ask for more than to have a good beach day with the water, local people watching and playing the game like it was meant to be played."
Brian Landman can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3347.