Class of 2002Active: 1977 - 2001
139 Open Victories
Christopher St. John "Sinjin" Smith notched his first open tournament victory in 1977 before a smattering of spectators standing, sitting and kneeling around the main court at the foot of Manhattan Beach's Marine Avenue. He and partner "Stormin'" Mike Normand won respect, but not a penny of prize money. Sixteen years later, in 1993, Smith won his 139th and final title in front of packed grandstands in Fort Myers, Florida and a national audience on cable television. It was stop three of a 25-city, multi-million dollar professional tour and Smith and partner Randy Stoklos split $15,000 for the win. Beach volleyball was surging toward its first Olympic competition in 1996 and an international tour had sprouted that would eventually globalize the sport.
Sinjin Smith and beach volleyball came far together. But the explosion of the sport during his career was no accident. Sinjin helped propel the game by promoting it almost as relentlessly as he played it. To support the American professional tour, Smith participated in the formation of the Association of Volleyball Professionals (AVP) in 1983 and later served as its president. He and other superstars of the era, including Stoklos, Tim Hovland and Mike Dodd, traveled to AVP host cities days early to promote the weekend tournaments by conducting interviews, meeting locals in restaurants and bars and signing autographs. Their enthusiasm for the sport and "larger than life" personalities attracted new fans wherever they traveled and turned unlikely locales like Cleveland, Ohio and Fort Worth, Texas into beach volleyball hotbeds – at least for a weekend.
Smith's image also broadened the sport's appeal. His phenomenal play, beach boyish good looks and marketing savvy landed him on Got Milk? billboards, on television as Magnum P.I.'s volleyball partner and in the pages of GQ and Playboy. Sinjin's acting and modeling earned him thousands of dollars, but also glamorized the game and sold the lifestyle, helping build beach volleyball's brand.
Smith also helped popularize the game and its culture by launching Sideout Sport, the first beach volleyball clothing line, in 1983. Sinjin's Sideout trunks, tank tops, T-shirts, painter's caps and flip-billed visors became fashionable beachwear and inspired a litany of Day-Glo-drenched imitators. When basketball great Larry Bird, perhaps America's most recognizable athlete at the time, wore a Sideout cap to a televised press conference before the 1987 NBA Finals, it was an unmistakable sign that Sinjin's brand – and his sport – had arrived.
Seeing new horizons for the game, Sinjin then helped jumpstart beach volleyball abroad. Starting in 1987, he played in tournaments conducted by the fledgling Federation International of Volleyball (FIVB). By 1995, the FIVB had evolved into a worldwide tour and Sinjin had joined it full-time. The FIVB leapt in credibility in 1996 when Smith and partner Carl Henkel nearly upset the "Dream Team" of Karch Kiraly and Kent Steffes in an epic quarterfinal match at the Atlanta Olympics. Late in his career and then after retiring as a player in 2001, Smith served the FIVB as a commissioner, executive and advisor, helping turn it into the world's preeminent tour.
In competition, Sinjin often wore his trademark "King of the Beach" line of Sideout shorts. They suited him well. His pinpoint passing, spectacular defense, impeccable cut shot, supreme confidence and relentless competitive spirit made him the winningest player in beach volleyball history until the legendary Kiraly passed him in career victories in 1999. Smith was also half of the winningest team in history, partnering with Stoklos for 114 professional victories and countless epic matches. The duo's fiery rivalry with the team of Hovland and Dodd in the 1980s was beach volleyball's version of Los Angeles Lakers versus Boston Celtics in the NBA. From 1982-89, the two teams combined to win 126 of the 171 tournaments played on the domestic tour, including seven of eight Manhattan Beach Opens. They met regularly – and often dramatically – in tournament finals, including five times at the Manhattan.
Sinjin was also an outstanding indoor volleyball player – a two-time all-American and national champion at UCLA – but he remains synonymous with beach volleyball. Thankfully, he and his generation took the sport to a level where their greatness was captured nearly every week on television. But Smith's legacy extends far beyond the video vault. It is alive in today's professional tours, reflected in every pair of "sport" sunglasses on the beach and heard during pickup games where "Sinjin" is still making digs years after retirement. Occasionally a modern defender will dig a driven ball with hands open at the waist and chest lurching skyward – Sinjin's signature style – and scream "Randy!" as if exhorting Smith's longtime partner Stoklos to chase down the ball and set him for another transition kill.
written by:: Scott Russell