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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS | BEACH VOLLEYBALL

Duel Helps Beach Volleyball Find Its Place in the Sun

Early rounds: Kiraly-Steffes beat Smith-Henkel in overtime. Top-seeded Reno-McPeak ousted.

July 27, 1996|MIKE KUPPER | TIMES ASSISTANT SPORTS EDITOR

JONESBORO, Ga. — There was a heavy overcast, so it won't go down as the duel in the sun. They were wearing shorts, so no one will remember them as knights in shining armor. And it was only another game in the elimination round, so it figures to rate no more than a bare score in any record book.

But long after the dudes and dudettes have grown into workaday nerds, with jobs and kids and mortgages, they will remember the day Karch and Sinjin, without a stick of driftwood in sight--heck, without a real beach in sight--set the sand on fire in the Olympics.

There they were Friday, Karch Kiraly and Sinjin Smith, the two most-honored names in volleyball, one a veteran of 35, the other a dinosaur of 39, looking like a couple of beach bums, playing like a couple of tigers.

And what the Baltimore Colts and New York Giants did for the NFL in their sudden-death championship game of 1958, they did for beach volleyball. Never again will anyone who saw it, live or on TV, question beach volleyball's place in the Olympics. If it didn't belong before, it occupies a niche of honor now.

"That was one hell of a match," said an awed Mike Dodd, himself a beach player of some stature. "That was Ali-Frazer!"

For the record, Kiraly and his partner, Kent Steffes, beat Smith and his partner, Carl Henkel, for a berth in the semifinals, 17-15.

The score says it was overtime. It says nothing of the emotion that gripped the game and squeezed out every drop of drama. It doesn't mention the political undercurrent that separates Kiraly and Smith. It doesn't begin to tell of the strategy, the athleticism, the guts and the glory that made this the game by which all other great beach volleyball games will be judged.

"It was like a made-for-TV movie," Steffes said. "It's the kind of game that makes me want to play for years and years."

But not necessarily against Smith and Henkel, whose very presence in the tournament had been like sand in the shorts of Kiraly and Steffes.

Kiraly and Steffes play on the American tour conducted by the Assn. of Volleyball Professionals, as do Dodd and his partner, Mike Whitmarsh. To get here, they had to take time away from their tour to compete in the Olympic trials at Baltimore in June.

Smith and Henkel play on an international tour sponsored by FIVB, the international volleyball organization. To the dismay of AVP players, they qualified on the strength of the points they had earned on the international tour.

Kiraly was outspoken in his criticism of the selection method, telling anyone who would listen that the international tour was inferior to the AVP, adding that there were several AVP teams better than Smith and Henkel, who have never even won on their tour.

He will still argue that if there are going to be Olympic trials, all teams should have to qualify there, but Smith and Henkel opened his eyes.

"My opinion has changed," he said. "I was mistaken. They gave us all we could handle and more. . . . The way they played today proved they should be here."

He was particularly impressed with elder statesman Smith.

"Sinjin played all phases of the game much better than I expected," he said. "There wasn't anything he didn't do out there."

Said Smith, "We proved that, as a team, we can compete with anyone in the world. We had a chance to win and I don't feel good about the outcome, but I feel good about the way we played. And we have a chance to meet them again."

That won't happen, since Smith and Henkel later lost again in the losers' bracket, but that subsequent defeat took none of the shine off the main event--of the day and of the sport.

Smith, acknowledging later that he was trying to unsettle Kiraly and Steffes, used a high-arching "sky serve," rather than the smoking jump serve common in beach volleyball as he and Henkel jumped to a 3-1 lead. Kiraly and Steffes battled back, but at 8-8, Henkel and Smith ran off four points for a 12-8 lead, Henkel twice serving aces.

Again Kiraly and Steffes fought back, Kiraly dumping a dink down the sideline to tie it, then scoring on a block for the lead. Smith tied it again for his team, then Henkel's block put him and Smith at match point.

Three times they served for the match but came away empty, then Kiraly tied it again with another drop shot. A kill by Smith and a block by Kiraly sent the match to overtime--first team to reach 17 wins--then an ace by Steffes gave him and Kiraly a 16-15 lead.

Five times they served at match point and the fifth time was the charm. Steffes served, then went to the net and bounced a volley off it, handcuffing Henkel and ending beach volleyball's finest hour.

Earlier in the day, Dodd and Whitmarsh had made the semifinals with a 15-6 victory over Sixto Jimenez and Javier Bosma of Spain, and will play Portugal's Luis Maia and Joao Brenha today. Maia and Brenha made the semis by beating Smith and Henkel in the losers' bracket, 15-13.

Both American teams were eliminated in the women's division.

First, Linda Hanley and Barbra Fontana Harris knocked off the No. 1 U.S. team, Nancy Reno and Holly McPeak, 15-10, then Brazilians Jackie Silva and Sandra Pires beat Fontana Harris and Hanley, 15-8.

Silva-Pires will play the other Brazilian team, Adriana Samuel and Monica Rodrigues in the gold-medal match, and Fontana Harris-Hanley will play Australians Natalie Cook and Kerri Ann Pottharst for the bronze medal.

After McPeak-Reno had lost, McPeak said that her on-again, off-again partnership with Reno was off again.

"I think that's the end of McPeak-Reno," she said. "It's not because of today. I think it was over earlier. I think we're both ready for some new partners."

That might have been the only clinker in the greatest day on the sand for beach volleyball.

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