From Tokyo to Beijing: A Michael O'Hara Story
This would be the first time that volleyball would be played on the world stage.
You can call O'Hara an Olympian, author, entrepreneur or business professor at Santa Monica College. But it would be hard to choose only one because he is definitely all of those and more.
To truly understand how O'Hara became so accomplished we must travel back to the year 1951 when O'Hara enrolled at Santa Monica College.
"In the 10th grade at Santa Monica High School I was the smallest [kid]. I was 4'10'' and 98 pounds," said O'Hara. Over the next 18 months O'Hara shot up 17 inches and because of his growth spurt he described high school as: "a blur."
"If I had gone to UCLA, USC or Stanford I would have died. Santa Monica College opened up its arms to me. I spent two lovely years there," said O'Hara. While O'Hara worked to regain his coordination, with his newfound size, he participated in the sports teams at SMC "I did everything," said O'Hara.
O'Hara standing at nearly 6'4'' wanted to utilize his size in basketball which he discovered he had a knack for at SMC. "I started dreaming of playing basketball," said O'Hara. He hoped to continue playing basketball at UCLA "their basketball team was set, so I joined a fraternity, Delta Tau Delta," said O'Hara.
Rather serendipitously, the frat house happened to have a volleyball court in their backyard. O'Hara was encouraged to forget about playing basketball and to join them on the volleyball court. "So I played [volleyball], and played a little on the beach and quickly found out that was my sport," said O'Hara.
O'Hara and his UCLA teammates would go on to compete in an Intramural Championship game against USC, Loyola and Pepperdine University and win it. With their spirits boosted after a victory they went to the Athletic Director Wilbur Johns at UCLA and told him about a National Collegiate Championship in Omaha, Nebraska. O'Hara told Johns: "We want to see how tough we are."
"We came back with a cup that was so big there was no room in the car. We roped it on top of the car and drove back and gave it to Wilbur Johns and said 'we're now national champions, don't you think it would be nice if we had a full-fl edged varsity team'," O'Hara said.
Johns agreed and gave UCLA its first varsity volleyball team thanks to O'Hara and his teammates' persistence and achievements.
During the mid-fifties when O'Hara was competing in volleyball tournaments, at the college level, it didn't seem like he could carry his volleyball talents much further. For an athlete, the Olympic Games are usually their Holy Grail. O'Hara was no exception, he had Olympic dreams as well.
When O'Hara was 16 his dream began when he heard Olympian Bob Mathias tell his story. At age 13 Mathias had polio back when it was more of a life threatening disease. His doctor informed him he would have to discontinue running and playing sports. Mathias defied his doctor's requests and won the gold in the decathlon at the 1948 London Games. O'Hara became inspired by his story and compared his life with Mathias'.
"I'm little, fast and quick, I'm going to make it as an Olympic runner," O'Hara said, only too lose hope for that dream later on because of his sudden growth spurt.
Regardless O'Hara took his volleyball career as far as he could at the time, the World Championships at Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 1960. O'Hara and his teammates lost out to the communist teams who were dominating the sport.
As the sport of volleyball grew it was inevitable that it would be integrated into the Olympic Games.
As luck would have it, it would only take four more years, giving O'Hara a chance to compete while he was still young.
In 1964, Tokyo had the honor of hosting the Olympic Games and they saw it to be advantageous for them to include volleyball in the games because they had one of the best teams in the world. O'Hara got his chance.
"Walking into the opening ceremony at 32 [years old], dreaming since I was 16, it was a dream come true," said O'Hara. He became hooked on the whole concept of the Olympics and has attended every Olympic Games since 1964 including the most recent Beijing Games over the summer.
O'Hara became heavily involved in the Los Angeles Olympic Games in 1984 where he served as the executive director of all 26 sports. Later he would become the vice president of television and communications. O'Hara helped bring the first profit out of an Olympic Games, netting over $233 million.
After his Olympic journey in Tokyo, O'Hara returned to SMC to coach volleyball. "We had a small team in the sixties," said O'Hara. "We had the mental superiority over all the teams we played. They were, mentally, so tough they refused to let the ball hit the ground on their side of the net."
In 1966 O'Hara lead SMC to victory against UCLA, winning the National Collegiate Championship.
This victory prompted UCLA and other four year universities to expel SMC and other junior colleges from competing in their league. This would put a hold on O'Hara's coaching career.
O'Hara would jump back aboard SMC's volleyball team as assistant coach in 2004 to help lead them to three consecutive play-off games before he retired from the team in 2007.
O'Hara is still an active faculty member at SMC, he continues to teach business which he has done since 1961. O'Hara currently teaches Entrepreneurship (Business 63) at SMC and he certainly practices what he preaches.
He helped establish the American Basketball Association, which later became the NBA as well as the World Hockey Association, which later became the NHL. O'Hara is also the owner of O'Hara International, Inc., an investment company he has guided to many financial achievements.
O'Hara has enjoyed becoming a recent author of two books with a third on the way. The first, "Prostate Cancer: and Other Prostate Problems," explains how to cope with prostate cancer, which he himself overcame in 2003. His second book, which is awaiting publication, "The Inside Look at the Olympic Movement and the 2008 Beijing Olympics," explores the history of volleyball as well as the technical evolutions of the sport.
O'Hara has led a spectacularly impressive life, he has traveled the world around and met with some of the most distinguished faces in American politics: Henry Kissinger who he describes as "a soccer addict," as well as Hillary Clinton, former President Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan who honored his many contributions.
The list of O'Hara's contributions could go on and on.
One thing is for sure, O'Hara has changed the face of sports and business as we know it. It's comforting to know that this man of such humble beginnings became so successful, keeping the American Dream alive. "It's been a good ride," O'Hara said, looking back on his life.