Sinjin Smith leans forward in his chair at a bustling Pacific Palisades deli and points to his biggest adversary.
No, not Karch Kiraly. It's Smith's right knee.
The knee used to be a willing co-conspirator, helping Smith win 139 tournaments, second most in history, while thrusting him into a cultural spotlight as the top man on the sand.
But after six operations, the knee has had enough. Smith, 44, is retiring after the Michelob Light Manhattan Beach Open, which continues today and ends Sunday.
The journey has been equally rewarding and controversial for Smith, whose tanned visage and deft skills made him eminently marketable. He appeared in more than 20 TV commercials, had a video game modeled after him, sold his name to a short-lived restaurant in El Segundo (alas, the memorabilia at Randy and Sinjin's was better than the chili), and co-owned a clothing store in Santa Monica where East Coast folks would breathlessly call with one request: Send us everything Sinjin wears.
It was hardly a surprise when People magazine named him one of the 50 most beautiful people in the world in 1990.
Early in his career, he formed an unbeatable partnership with Kiraly and, after that ended in 1984, joined Randy Stoklos in what became the most successful team in beach volleyball history, winning 113 tournaments.
As his popularity grew with the sport, he fought openly with the tour he helped found, the Assn. of Volleyball Professionals, and was ultimately exiled by its player-only management in 1993.
But he forged a career on the international tour, extending his sphere of influence to such places as the Canary Islands and Klagenfurt, Austria, while helping beach volleyball become an Olympic sport in 1996.
Over a tuna melt with fries on a sunny Wednesday afternoon, Christopher St. John Smith--his given name--knows that life has been as unpredictable as it has been successful since he first started playing beach volleyball as a teenager.
"Did I think I could have made a living playing volleyball? Absolutely not," he said, remembering with a smile that early tournament prizes included a beach chair, a new volleyball or an ice chest--an empty one, no less.
"Did I think anybody in the country would know who I was? Absolutely not. Did I think volleyball would become an Olympic sport and I'd have a hand in it? No way. It's unbelievable, really."
Smith initially made a name for himself playing indoor volleyball, going to UCLA from Loyola High and leading the Bruins to a 31-0 record as a senior in 1979, the first undefeated season in college volleyball history.
He was supposed to play in the 1980 Olympics, but watched it on TV while the U.S. boycotted. From there, he chose the beach game, teaming with Kiraly to win a stunning 21 of 24 tournaments until they split, Kiraly going the indoor route and winning Olympic gold medals in 1984 and 1988 while Smith gained fame on the beach with Stoklos.
Smith and Stoklos won more than half of the 225 tournaments they entered and reached the semifinals more than 90% of the time. When they broke up in 1993, Stoklos shocking his partner with a request to go in a different direction, Smith had already soured on the AVP.
Smith and Stoklos were reprimanded by the AVP in 1992 for skipping a tournament in Seal Beach to play in an international tournament in Spain. The event in Almeria came up a week after the Barcelona Olympics and was a trial run of sorts for intrigued members of the International Olympic Committee. It also had a generous prize pool of $250,000.
AVP officials thought Smith was chasing the money. Smith thought otherwise.
"[AVP management] was telling us we couldn't go to an event that had a big impact on whether beach volleyball would become an Olympic sport," he said.
Smith and Stoklos were each fined $35,000 for skipping Seal Beach.
A year later, Smith left for the rival international tour, although he did not leave controversy behind, quarreling with AVP players during the qualification process for the Atlanta Olympics.
Kiraly, who had remained with the AVP and considered Smith a turncoat for choosing the international tour, was irritated that Smith and partner Carl Henkel were granted an automatic Olympic berth by virtue of their ranking on the international tour.
Kiraly didn't understand why he and other U.S. players had to beat one another up in the U.S. Olympic trials in Baltimore, while Smith and Henkel got to watch from afar.
"I have nothing against him personally," Kiraly said at the time, "But I am critical of an Olympic qualification system that allowed a certain team to be exempt of [U.S.] Olympic trials."
To some extent, the dispute was settled on the court.
Kiraly and partner Kent Steffes qualified via the U.S. trials and met Smith and Henkel in the Olympics with a semifinal berth on the line. In one of the top beach matches in history, Kiraly and Steffes won, 17-15, and went on to take the gold medal.