Mike O'Hara: Life above the net
Most people would be able to feel a sense of accomplishment in their lives, if they were able to say, become an Olympic athlete, or rub shoulders with U.S Presidents and celebrities alike. Even winning national championships or having the honor of fighting for our countries freedom would be enough to feel a sense of satisfaction during ones lifetime. But for SMC alumni and ex volleyball coach Mike O’Hara, he had checked all that off his list before turning 30.
Since his glory days, O’Hara has even helped start a U.S chapter of Ready, Set, Gold! A foundation focused on keeping kids active, competitive and health conscience. In addition to starting his foundation, O’Hara found time to publish two books: ‘Prostate Cancer: And Other Prostate Problems, Prevention, Measures And Cures’, and ‘Volleyball, Fastest Growing Sport in the World! The Basic Guide to the Sport Challenging Soccer.’
But the impact Mike O’Hara has had on the people surrounding him goes far beyond books and foundations. The institutions and lives that he has touched cannot simply be measured; the impact is much further reaching.
O’Hara was born in Waco Texas. But by the time he was seven, the family was on their way to the West Coast, to try their luck in the growing beach town of Santa Monica. A city at the time, O’Hara describes as more of a country town equipped with boardwalk trolleys and bathhouses, which O’Hara remembers as being Mecca.
“My brother had bronchitis, and we had an uncle who owned a few bath houses along the beach. He actually lived in one off Ocean Park,” said O’Hara. “We moved in to the apartment right next to him, right on the beach with the fabulous pier South of us. Waco we thought was pretty cool until we got out here. We had more fun growing up on the beach.”
When it was finally time for O’Hara to attend high school, he found himself in the awkward position of being the smallest student, boy or girl in the entire school. A predicament he son would grow out of.
“In the tenth grade I was 4-foot-ten, ninety eight pounds. Then through high school I started growing, and I went from four-foot-ten to six-foot-three,” said O’Hara. “Before the growth spurt all I did was learn to play the French horn, the cornet, the piano, it was a miserable time. My Mother had my brother and I take half-hour music lessons every day for about four or five years. She wanted us to be in music. I still play a little bit of piano and I’m now learning to play the guitar.”
After graduating from Santa Monica High School, O’Hara took the next step in his journey of higher learning as he enrolled into Santa Monica College. With the help of a very beneficial growth spurt, O’Hara had his sights set on joining the SMC basketball team, and soon would be surprised by the new opportunities he would be offered.
“SMC hadn’t moved up here yet, it was right across the street. So I’m finally full grown, six-foot-three, good coordination. So I joined the basketball team, the coach liked me. He was also the tennis coach,” said O’Hara. “He had five guys for the upcoming season, but he needed six and he said I was it. So I go on out there, and found out that I really like tennis and still play it today. I’m still playing in tournaments all over the country.”
After attending SMC, O’Hara was set on transferring to UCLA and possibly playing for the storied UCLA basketball team. An idea that turns out was out of O’Hara’s realm of possibility, even for an athlete as gifted as him.
“I went over to UCLA hoping to play basketball, and coach Wooden said ‘Mike, I like your interest, but I have a set team, and you only have two years of eligibility left, I can’t do it.’ So I said goodbye to basketball, and joined a fraternity house that had a volleyball court in the back yard. Nice guy Wooden, he liked me. In fact somewhere along the line I hired him to coach my kid. We’ve got pictures of all of us in my trophy room.”
After being turned away from the basketball program, O’Hara joined the Delta house, a UCLA fraternity. What O’Hara would stumble upon next would change the trajectory of his life from that point forward.
While getting familiar with the Delta house and all of its accommodations, O’Hara found his way to the backyard where the fraternity had set up a volleyball/basketball court. Before O’Hara knew what happened, he was the #1 contender at the fraternity.
“They said ‘forget about basketball, this is your sport.’ Once I started playing, I found out I was really good at it right away.” O’Hara.
While at the Delta house, volleyball wasn’t the only thing O’Hara fell in love with. Shortly after joining the fraternity, O’Hara developed a deep appreciation for the guitar, a love affair that is thriving to this day.
One of the remaining effects of his childhood music lessons is his affinity for music, none having a greater effect on him than the guitar. As a matter of fact, the guitar is one of the remaining instruments that O’Hara still plays to this day.
“I fell in love with the guitar at the Delta house. The Tri-Deltas came over for an exchange and they brought this gal that had spent four years in Hawaii, and she did a hula for us, I mean everyone in the room, woman or man fell in love with her,” said O’Hara. “I mean It was such a sensational thing, and I love Hawaii, I spent some time over there because volleyball is king, beach volleyball was invented in Honolulu at the Outrigger Canoe Club, so boy, to be able to play the guitar.”
What started out as a great way to spend his free time and socialize eventually turned into a vehicle for athletic competition. The competition that O’Hara craved when he initially tried out for the UCLA basketball team.
With O’Hara’s Delta brothers comprising a pretty darn good team, O’Hara’s next step was contacting the UCLA athletic director in an attempt to get the school’s blessing in letting the Delta house represent UCLA in the national championships.
“As a Delta team, I talked to the athletic director who didn’t know anything about volleyball, and asked him, if we pay our own way, would you let us represent UCLA in the national championship?” Said O’Hara. “So he said yeah, and he gave us some old basketball jerseys and six of us got into a car, drove to Ohio and came back with the championship cup.”
O’Hara who would earn college All American honors in 1953 & 1954, had unbeknownst to himself, created UCLA’s men’s volleyball program from literally nothing.
After he and his brothers returned with the championship trophy, needless to say, the athletic director was very interested in officially establishing UCLA’s men’s volleyball program.
“When we got back, I said coach, we’re the national champs, and don’t you think it would be nice to have a varsity program? So he said ‘yeah, I’m in the business of championship teams.’ So the next year we won again, and then after that, they hired a coach, and went about their business.”
Between O’Hara’s sophomore and junior years at UCLA, he found that he needed a way to pass the time. Being in Los Angeles, what better way for an indoor volleyball national champion to spend his time than on one of the many beautiful beaches lining the California coast.
It didn’t take long for O’Hara to realize he was missing out on another calling. Beach volleyball.
“I hadn’t played any beach volleyball until after my two years at UCLA. Summer was there, and what was I going to do? So I went down to play, but it took me about six weeks to get used to it and about two or three months to get a good partner.”
Once O’Hara discovered another long lost calling, it was only a matter of time before he exceled to the top of the field, as he seemed to do in almost all of his undertakings.
After honing his skills on the beach, he was given another opportunity to showcase his talents. An opportunity he was not expecting, but one he would not squander.
“At the end of the summer, I came to State Beach, which was the place to be for beach volleyball, and this guy Gene Selznick owned it. He picked the referees and had a major edge,” said O’Hara. “But two weeks before this tournament was going to be held, Selznick was holding court with about eight to 10 guys, I mean he was a great talker, neat guy, he and I ended up becoming rivals, but these guys asked him who he was going to play with?”
What happened next would come to shape the trajectory of O’Hara’s career along with many others, including Selznick.
“These guys were asking Selznick who he was going to play with, and he said he could play with any of eight guys and win this tournament. So one of the guys went over to Don McMahon, his partner and told him what Selznick said, and after McMahon confronted him, he came over to me and said he could use a partner,” said O’Hara. “We actually wound up playing them in the finals and barely beat them in three. So suddenly we were on the top of the beach volleyball world.”
Taking down the untouchable Selznick would only be the beginning of one of the most historic beach volleyball careers any man or woman has ever had.
What could have been just a chance meeting turned into one of the greatest beach volleyball duos to ever hit the sand, as O’Hara and McMahon would stay partners for most of their professional careers, and win multiple titles in the process.
“The beach volleyball season moved from State Beach to Manhattan Beach. That was like Wimbledon for tennis. If you won a tournament there, you got your name and plaque on the pier,” said O’Hara. “Everyone in the world wanted to come over and play in that tournament, so they could get on the pier. To this day, it’s like Mecca. The first five years my partner and I won. Nobody’s ever matched that.”
While dominating the beach volleyball circuit, O’Hara and his partner were afforded many opportunities to be ambassadors of the game, most notably in Hawaii. But O’Hara’s affinity for Hawaii would go far beyond the sand and would even follow him back to his old stomping grounds.
“The president of the Outrigger Canoe Club was my best buddy. Volleyball was king, and then it came over here, and Duke Kahanamoku was hired by the Santa Monica Beach Club to be their athletic director,” said O’Hara. “After Kahanamoku won the gold medal in the 1932 Olympics, he was king of the world.”
After graduating from UCLA and jaunting around the Hawaiian Islands, O’Hara took a step toward a more dutiful line of work as he enrolled in the Army, just as the Korean War began.
“After I graduated from UCLA, I went up to Alaska for the U.S Army, trying to keep the Russians from coming over the hill into the United States,” said O’Hara. “That was the Korean War, fifties, fifty five, just as the Korean War was starting.”
Though Mike may have landed in a cushier spot than most, his brother was not as lucky. Originally enrolling in the National Guard, O’Hara’s brother and his fellow soldiers were unexpectedly taken to the heart of the conflict, a task they were ill prepared for.
“My brother served over there, he was in the National Guard because he didn’t want to go anywhere, and they took the whole group over there,” said O’Hara. “Within six months, half of them were dead. They didn’t know what they were doing.”
Going from the beautiful shores of Los Angeles and Hawaii to the baron wasteland between Alaska and Russia, would surely give anyone appreciation for a more familiar surrounding.
Going from a tropical paradise to a frozen tundra, had to be shocking, especially for someone like O’Hara who spent every waking moment outside. So to finally get back to the West Coast beaches he so longed for, had to be quite a sight for sore eyes.
One of the first activities O’Hara re-engaged in upon his arrival back in Southern California was you guessed it, some good ol’ beach volleyball.
Except this time the stakes were a little higher, at least on a social level.
“I got invited and played volleyball with Peter Lawford. Though the biggest disappointment when I got to hang with these guys was Frank Sinatra,” said O’Hara. “He was my hero, we would drive out to Vegas for the weekend when I was in college to watch him perform. But getting close to him was a disappointment.”
If interacting with Frank Sinatra was a disappointment, then hanging out with the Kennedy brothers and Marilyn Monroe was quite the opposite.
“We would be down at Peter Lawford’s house in Manhattan Beach, and here would be President Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe and Angie Dickinson, you name it,” said O’Hara. “My favorite story is this one time when Marilyn Monroe was there, around one o’clock in the morning; the President said ‘lets go skinny dipping.’ Of course everybody thought it sounded like fun, so out we went, all of us.”
To be able to romp around with historic figures like the Kennedy brothers and Marilyn Monroe is as rare as company gets. Most people would find themselves star struck around such wildly popular public figures, but O’Hara had been around the block a few times by then, it would take something more to stun him, or someone.
“The Kennedy’s and I talked a little, but they were there to party. They were worrying about Marilyn Monroe and Angie Dickinson. I thought Angie was sensational. I thought she was so much prettier and had so much more personality than Marilyn.”
After O’Hara was done sewing his wild oats, he settled down and focused on his beach volleyball career. It would become a move that would lead him to arguably the most important introduction of his young life. The first time he met his wife.
“I spiked the ball and it rolled out of the court, and she went and got it for me. So I told her, thank you very much, you will be rewarded after the game (laughing).”
The O’Hara’s would have two children. A girl who currently lives in Orange County and a boy who among other things would become captain of the Harvard and Stanford volleyball teams as well as class president, and eventually C.E.O of Madison Square Garden Television.
With a father like Mike O’Hara, such accolades were to be expected. But what might be surprising are the extraordinary influences Mike O’Hara afforded his son.
After settling into the Santa Monica area with his own family, O’Hara would procure many business relationships with many well-known business personalities in the L.A area. One more notable relationship was with Hall of Fame Lakers owner Jerry Buss.
“I was having dinner with a friend who wanted me to join the Jonathon Club. It turned out he also owned the California Miss Universe pageant. So he said he wanted me to be a judge (laughing). Then I asked if he minded if I get a friend of mine in? He said who’s that? I said Jerry Buss, who owns the Lakers,” said O’Hara. “He said they could work him into it (laughing). We became best friends because we were going to all these parties. Jerry loved me.”
Eventually that love would be reflected back onto Buss, as Jerry would end up providing some major influences for Mike’s son Ryan.
“Jerry Buss invited me to a fight in Vegas one time, and he said bring a guest. So I brought my 17 year old son and he brought Magic Johnson,” said O’Hara. “The four of us flew over, and on the way to the airport, I made sure my son sat next to Magic. They had a nice conversation, and we went to watch the fights, and had a great time.”
Little did Mike know, that would not be the last time he or Ryan would have an audience with Magic Johnson.
“Three or four months later during the NBA Finals, Jerry called me and said to get over to the Forum, that if they won that night, they would win the whole thing, and to bring a friend. So I brought my son again, because I brought him to everything,” said O’Hara. “We watched them play, they won, and the place went crazy. Jerry asked if we wanted to go to the locker room. So we walked down were Magic was, and the first thing Magic said was ‘Hey Ryan, how’s volleyball going?’ That’s why he’s a zillionaire. Because he’s smart and he remembers everything.”
With the Hollywood nights behind him, O’Hara would start to cultivate a long lasting legacy in the Santa Monica area, as he took possession of the Santa Monica College volleyball program in an attempt to put them on the map.
“I was teaching at SMC at the time. That first year we had the world’s shortest team, we had one guy over six feet,” said O’Hara. “So I said how am I going to turn this around? So I gave them a speech and I said the only way you’re going to win is to not let the ball hit the ground. Everything has to be dug, and as long as you don’t let that ball hit inside the lines, you can win.”
What the SMC team would do next, not even the most astute volleyball analyst would have been able to predict, as SMC would beat UCLA for the NCAA men’s volleyball national championship.
“It was so embarrassing to them, that AL Scates, my buddy, he hated me (laughing). The first year we played that I coached, we came in second in the nation, four-year schools, two-year schools, boom,” said O’Hara. “The next year we won the whole thing, and UCLA came in second, we beat ‘em like fifteen to three. So Al Scates hated me all of the sudden and he worked it to where no longer were community college teams able to play with the big boys. So that was the end of it for a while, then we got our own league going. It was all junior colleges, and of course we did pretty well.”
What might be O’Hara’s crowning achievement though is his Olympic legacy. O’Hara not only competed in indoor volleyball during the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, but he has not missed the summer games since.
After representing the U.S.A, O’Hara did not stop there. Since his playing days, he has been an Olympic torchbearer four times and even adopted his foundation Ready, Set, Gold! After seeing it presented while on an Olympic committee to bring the games to New York City.
“We got indoor volleyball into the Olympics in 1964. Later on I was able to get beach volleyball in. We came in seventh or eighth in ‘64. In those days, it was UCLA playing the Lakers,” said O’Hara. “If you showed promise at a young age in any of the communist countries, especially in Russia, they’d train you at age five or six. They were set for life as long as they kept progressing. Six days a week, six hours a day, volleyball. Or whatever there sport was.”
Being such a well-known Olympic ambassador, O’Hara has had the opportunity to bend the ear of many influential and powerful people. Many of them world leaders like former President Jimmy Carter.
“I ran into him in Australia at a Young Presidents Organization. We were both speakers, and they took us off to play tennis one afternoon when we had some time,” said O’Hara. “So I walked over to him and said I couldn’t believe you made the decision you made to boycott the Olympics. I was about to give him 10 minutes worth, until he interrupted me and said ‘Mike, your absolutely right. It was bad advice I was given, I let them convince me, and it turned into a real blunder. I think that’s one of the main reasons I didn’t win the second time around.’ So what could I say (laughing).”
Although all of O’Hara’s Olympic endeavors may seem glamorous, it was only a matter of time before the odds caught up with him.
During one of his last stints as torchbearer, O’Hara found himself in a shady part of town, late at night with his security escort lagging. What happened next, the Hollywood writers couldn’t have even come up with.
“They said they wanted me to run through San Pedro at midnight. My escort was pretty far behind, because there was nobody out. But then we passed this bar and three drunken guys came out and tried to get the torch,” said O’Hara. “So I’m standing there playing Count of Monte Cristo, waving the torch at them until my escort could get there. Eventually he showed up and they ran away. But it would have been the biggest Olympic news story in that non-Olympic year if they had been successful, and I wasn’t about to relinquish it.”
How O’Hara got started in Ready, Set, Gold! Might surprise people. It actually wasn’t even his idea to begin with. But after it was brought to his attention, he had no choice but to adopt the foundation as his own and champion it to this day.
“The mayor of New York City called and said he was putting together a 30 person team to try and get the Olympic games for NYC. I asked who else was in the group and he said Mohammed Ali, myself, corporate presidents etc. So I went over there and fell in love with a program that London actually won with called Ready, Set, Gold!” Said O’Hara. “I knew the guy heading the program and picked his brain. After that, I took the program back to the U.S and was part of the group putting this together and I said we have to use this vehicle to get the kids excited about competition. We hired ex-Olympians and had 50 high schools enrolled in the program. It’s been imminently successful and we’re now trying to get it in other states like New York.”
O’Hara has also published two books. Two everlasting icons of his legacy that will give generations the opportunity to not only learn the secrets of the trade for his beloved game of volleyball, but also stay prepared late in life incase cancer ever rears its ugly head.
The first book: Volleyball, Fastest Growing Sport in the World! The Basic Guide to the Sport Challenging Soccer. By Michael O’Hara. Is a total comprehensive guide to the sport that touches on everything from what the sport is all about to the future of volleyball and everything in between.
“We’re converting it into Mandarin because all the Chinese can read Mandarin no matter what dialect they speak,” said O’Hara. “Volleyball is huge over there, it’s growing like crazy.”
The second book: Prostate Cancer: And Other Prostate Problems, Prevention, Measures And Cures, is almost like a game plan for that difficult and unexpected fight with the disease afflicting so many people. The book covers everything from the shock of finding out to the future post-disease.
“I had prostate cancer, I went through it, and so I wrote a real good book on what to do, what the different choices are, and they said its saved over six hundred lives, which is maybe the best thing I’ve ever done.”
Michael O’Hara in his 82nd year, is a shining example to us all. What he was able to do in his first 30 years puts most lifetime resumes to shame. The company he’s kept is enough to make anyone long to be a fly on the wall, during one of those chance encounters. The dedication and fervor, which he currently lives with, is enough to make anyone question whether they’re getting everything out of their life.
If at the end of my life I’ve accomplished a fraction of the feats Mike O’Hara has been able to conquer, I’ll consider myself lucky.