Karch Kiraly washed up? No way, dude.
Five months after being dumped by fellow Olympic gold medalist Kent Steffes, Kiraly is once again part of the hottest team in beach volleyball.
Kiraly and Adam Johnson, himself dropped by a seemingly solid partner, have won four of the last five tournaments heading into the biggest payday in beach volleyball history, the $325,000 Miller Lite-Association of Volleyball Professionals Tour Championships this weekend in Orlando, Fla.. The winning team will split $87,500.
Kiraly, 36, and Johnson, 32, finally have the mental edge over their biggest rivals, who happen to be their former partners.
Kiraly and Steffes formed one of the most successful teams in beach volleyball history, winning 76 tournaments from 1990-96, as well as the first Olympic beach volleyball gold medal last year at Atlanta.
But Kiraly, considered the world's best volleyball player, was plagued with the worst injuries of his career. He underwent offseason rotator cuff surgery and then sustained an unrelated nerve injury in his right shoulder in the all-star King of the Beach Tournament in mid-March. That kept him out for seven tournaments.
Steffes then coaxed Jose Loiola away from Johnson. It's just the way things work in beach volleyball.
"I expected our partnership to end at some point, and it probably was brought on a little sooner because of the shoulder injury," Kiraly said during a conference call. "I've been on the other end of it."
Kiraly had to move on with another partner when Steffes had a serious shoulder injury a few years back.
"Once Kent and Jose showed they were the team to beat, everybody was out to take them down," Kiraly said. "That's our mission, to beat them whenever we can and win more tournaments than they do. We can't do that this year, but we can try to make up as much ground as can. We enjoy beating them."
Steffes and Loiola have won 11 of 20 tournaments, but none since mid-July. That's when Kiraly and Johnson went on a four-tournament winning streak, the longest on the AVP tour this year. That streak was stopped last weekend by Mike Whitmarsh and Canyon Ceman in Belmar, N.J.
Kiraly and Johnson went from 0-4 against their former partners to winning three straight matches against them, including two in tournament finals.
Kiraly credits Johnson with being patient as he came back from the shoulder injury.
Johnson felt Kiraly would return to form.
"I wasn't sure how long it was going to take, and felt at times that it just wasn't going to happen this year," Johnson said. "I stuck with him and never thought about leaving him just because I enjoy playing with him."
Kiraly, a three-time Olympic gold medalist, and Johnson intend to remain partners next year.
"We both look forward to having a full season, a healthy season," said Kiraly, who is nine victories shy of tying Sinjin Smith's record of 139. "We want to see what we can put together. It's certainly been exciting what we've done the past several weeks."
Kiraly and Johnson will also play together in the Nike Beach Volleyball World Championships Sept. 10-13 at UCLA. Due to nationality rules, Steffes will play with Dain Blanton while Loiola will be teamed with fellow Brazilian Eduardo Bacil.
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