Volleyball legend Mike O’Hara — he leaves you breathless

They like to call the Manhattan Beach Open the Wimbledon of beach volleyball.

That makes Mike O’Hara some kind of stud, because he won the thing five times in a row, including the inaugural open in 1960.

And there’s so, so much more to Mike O’Hara’s story.  Everyone should lead a life so interesting — then and now, especially now, at age 78, because he just keeps going. He just published his latest book — “Volleyball: Fastest Growing Sport in the World!”

In case you might miss the point, here’s the subtitle to the book: “The Basic Guide to the Sport Challenging Soccer.”

1964 U.S. volleyball Olympian Mike O'Hara speaking to the San Fernando Valley Kiwanis Service Club. His 2011 efforts include plans to develop inexpensive sand or dirt volleyball courts worldwide // photo: O'Hara family

Another of Mike’s books, so you should know, was updated in 2004. It’s all about prostate cancer, which Mike was diagnosed with in his late 60s. He’s doing just great, and if you’d like to know just how great, it’s all there in the book — how, in typical Mike fashion, he studied up, educated himself, made some decisions and moved on, no regrets, onto the next challenge.

That’s Mike. No regrets and what’s next?

Early 1960s big-time volleyball, and Miss California in the middle. Right to left: Mike O'Hara, Mike Bright, Gene Selznick, Ron Lang // photo: O'Hara family

Born in Texas, Mike moved to California when he was just a kid. He grew up near the beach and went to Santa Monica High School. In tenth grade he was all of 4 feet, 10 inches tall. Over the next 18 months he grew 17 inches. By the time he got to college, he was 6-feet-4.

He started at Santa Monica City College, then transferred to UCLA where, naturally enough, he was interested in basketball. The relatively new coach at UCLA happened to be a gentleman named John Wooden. Mr. Wooden was intrigued in a specimen who stood 6-4. But not interested enough because the young man had only two years of eligibility remaining.

So Mike took up volleyball. “It was like being in the desert all my life and suddenly I found a magic waterfall,” he says now of not only how good he got but how much he loved the game.

Mike O'Hara spiking for the United States at the 1964 Summer Games // photo: O'Hara family

In 1953, Mike and the rest of his Delta Tau Delta fraternity intramural championship volleyball team talked the UCLA athletic director, Wilbur Johns, into letting them represent the university at the national collegiate volleyball championships — which the boys had to get to in Omaha, Neb., all by themselves. They roped the championship trophy to the roof of their car to get it back to Westwood.

Johns thereupon made men’s volleyball a varsity sport. The next year the Bruins road-tripped it to Tucson. Again, they came back with the national championship trophy.

In 1959, Mike played on the gold medal-winning U.S. national team at the Pan American Game. He played at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, on the American team at volleyball’s first appearance at the Summer Games.

Outdoors, at the beach, he teamed with Mike Bright to dominate at Manhattan Beach — showing the kind of versatility that Karch Kiraly would show a generation later.

Mike helped organize the 1984 Olympics in L.A.

President Reagan and the First Lady receive an Olympic mural at the White House from 1984 Los Angeles Games organizing committee officials Bob Fitzpatrick and Mike O'Hara // photo: O'Hara family

He helped develop the American Basketball Assn, — he can regale you with hugely entertaining tales about the Kentucky Colonels of the ABA — as well as the World Hockey Assn. and professional track.

The rally scoring system that’s now an essential feature of volleyball worldwide? That was Mike’s idea.

Oh, there’s more. Of course there is.

Mike has deservedly been made a member of various volleyball halls of fame.

Mike has done extensive on-camera broadcast work.

Mike O'Hara and Ted Turner at the 1986 Goodwill Games in Moscow // photo: O'Hara family

And he worked closely for years with Art Linkletter, helping the TV personality with various business ventures. The two became not just professional colleagues — they were close friends before Art’s death, at age 97, last May.

At a lunch celebrating Art’s 96th birthday, Mike was telling Art how something Art had once said to him had changed his life.

What, Art said, was that?

Well, Mike said, you told me, find something you like to do — because then you really never work another day in your life.

Art paused. He said, I’ve thought about that. There’s more to it.

Mike said, what do you mean?

My new philosophy, Art said, is this: What’s important in life is not how many breaths you take. It’s how many times life makes you breathless.

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