Karch Kiraly was back on the beach, pink baseball cap and all, playing as if time had slipped back a decade or so.
He was reminded of his age by a group of hecklers--"Serve it to the old man, he's weak, he can't hit"--but Kiraly, 41, simply smiled. Three Olympic gold medals have a way of instilling a measure of confidence.
It had been a long two years for Kiraly, who practically disappeared from the beach volleyball landscape amid a rash of injuries--shoulder, groin, Achilles' heel--but bobbed up to the surface two weeks ago at the Huntington Beach Open.
Kiraly didn't win Huntington, but he and partner Brent Doble tied for third, a championship of sorts for a guy who used to kick sand at anything less than first.
Beach volleyball's all-time leader with 142 tournament championships, Kiraly hadn't come close to an Assn. of Volleyball Professionals title in almost two years.
He will get another chance at the Hermosa Beach Open, which starts today with qualifying rounds and ends with the main draw Saturday and Sunday.
Kiraly and Doble were better than expected at Huntington, advancing to the semifinals as the eighth-seeded team before getting ousted by Canyon Ceman and Mike Whitmarsh in a tight match.
"I think things were going quick and pretty well," Kiraly said. "We had a lot of good wins against some higher-seeded teams. We were right there almost ready to beat Whit and Canyon, we just needed a couple more points. I was quite happy with the level I played throughout the weekend, [being] the oldest guy out there."
Whitmarsh, the second-oldest AVP player, turned 40 last month. He has seen plenty of Kiraly over the years, losing to Kiraly and Kent Steffes in the gold-medal match at the 1996 Olympics.
"There's nothing wrong with Karch," Whitmarsh said. "He may not be jumping as high as he used to or hitting as hard, but he's smart. He has so much experience and he knows tendencies so well. Players like that are one step ahead of other players. I'd be surprised if he doesn't win a tournament this year."
Kiraly hadn't been close to winning anything since taking the Virginia Beach Open with former partner Adam Johnson on July 30, 2000.
Kiraly's troubles began barely a week later, when he dislocated his right shoulder while trying to qualify for the Sydney Olympics at a tournament in Belgium. He went through surgery, then shoulder rehabilitation and was ready for the start of last AVP season ... until he injured his Achilles' a few days before the first tournament. He sat out all but the final two tournaments and finished ninth with Scott Ayakatubby at both Santa Barbara and Manhattan Beach.
Kiraly is now injury-free. He played well at Huntington. The next AVP tournament has been good to him in the past. He has won Hermosa six times, including three in a row from 1996-98. Any talk of retirement has been put on hold ... for now.
"I was happy to start off the year healthy enough to play a tournament," said Kiraly, who will take stock of his career after the final AVP tournament in September.
"I'll look back on a combination of things. Did I have fun? Did my partner and I compete well? How did my body hold up? We'll have to see how the tournaments work themselves out this year."