By Steve Virgen
Oct. 8, 2007
Reprinted with permission of the author.
The blood that remained cool amid the cold now flows through Bob Ctvrtlik. It’s in his veins, the lines run, too, through his three sons.
That blood that kept Josef Ctvrtlik alive while steps away from a torturous death, resides somewhere deep in his youngest son.
How does Bob Ctvrtlik block out the periphery and finish the task at hand? How is he able to ignore turbulence for the sake of reaching a destination? Why does his life seem so picture perfect, though there is reason to feel gloom?
On the surface, there’s not much evidence. There’s not much telling where Bob Ctvrtlik came from.
There are several reasons why he’ll be inducted into the USA Volleyball Hall of Fame Thursday. Still, more reasons why he works so hard as vice president of international affairs for the United States Olympic Committee.
But the source of it all won’t be there in Holyoke, Mass. where Bob Ctvrtlik will be honored. Nor is it at his home on Balboa Island.
In the past, in pictures, in stories told a hundred times over, that’s where the source can be found.
Margaret Ctvrtlik only smiles when she speaks of her late husband. Photos of him, newspaper clippings about him and even music that told much of him can be recognized in her home at Belmont Shore.
She fell in love with her husband less than a few hundred feet from where she now sleeps. The memories are there below her window, happy times from the days spent with that man from Czechoslovakia. That man who made a life and a family with her.
That man who escaped such turmoil, such despair to earn freedom, to find a better place to live. To find himself.
He seemed destined to succeed. He was fluent in eight languages. Czech, Russian, Italian, German, Latin, French, English and Spanish, he could speak them all. He was intelligent, a graduate of Charles University in Prague.
He was brave, too. As the Nazis occupied his country, Josef stood steadfast in his beliefs and eventually in his pursuit of freedom. In 1943, he spent three months in a prison camp for refusing to help translate for the Nazi mayor of his home town, Moravia.
At the university, he wrote for an underground newspaper. The word got out and it was shut down. The Nazis came hunting for each person who contributed to the newspaper.
Leaving his life behind, Josef fled, escaping on skis. This was cross-country skiing through blizzards. He didn’t care. He was ready to leave.
After 18 months in West Germany, he then spent five years working as a wool buyer in New Zealand.
In 1955, he came to the United States, where he would have to pronounce, spell and re-spell his name to everyone.
Ctvrtlik. Pronounced sta-vert-lick.
Margaret shakes her head with regret and fascination when she tells the stories. There could have been a book written about his times. But in his final days, cancer wrapped him so, there was too much pain to think about the past.
There might have been a novel just about the many people who came through the Ctvrtlik home. Because Josef was such a master of languages, international dignitaries, foreign athletes and other people with grand backgrounds came to him.
He started the Russian department at Long Beach State, where he was a professor for 18 years. He retired there in 1980. At age 55, he tried to continue working though he was battling cancer.
In 1983, he died.
Bob Ctvrtlik didn’t let his father’s death bring him down. He was an outside hitter at Pepperdine and ready to take on the world.
It didn’t matter that he had played only two years of organized volleyball. And, it didn’t matter that there were no scholarships available to him at Pepperdine.
“He made himself a great player,” said Marv Dunphy, the Pepperdine men’s volleyball coach who was also coach for Ctvrtlik and the U.S. Olympic team that won gold in Seoul, South Korea in 1988. “More than any player I ever coached, he was just determined to be as good as he could be.”
Dunphy shook his head, no, when Ctvrtlik asked of scholarships after transferring in from Long Beach State. Ctvrtlik responded with, “Where’s the financial aid office?”
In his first year with Pepperdine, in 1985, Ctvrtlik helped the Waves win a national championship.
Dunphy knew the source of Ctvrtlik’s success, yet the same reason the 6-foot-4 robot-like volleyball player could have been depressed. Ctvrtlik’s ability to persevere could also be seen on the court.
“The most important play is always the next play,” Dunphy said. “Sometimes people hang on to the good things or the bad things too long, but that was never the case with him.”
That could be seen when he played for three Olympic teams in 1988, ’92 and ’96. The gold medal came in 1988, when Team USA defeated Russia.
The blood boiled. Such concentration Ctvrtlik showed. Pounding the ball, kill after kill.
“Teams couldn’t wear him down, and they tried to,” said teammate Karch Kiraly, now an icon on the beach scene who retired this year. “They would serve at him and they failed time after time. Bob never lost anything as teams consistently tried to exploit what they thought was a physical or mental weakness. And, they never figured out that he had great mental and physical strength. That worked to our advantage.”
During his playing days, Ctvrtlik studied the game, each opponent, but most of all he developed great skill in concentration.
The loud fans, the flags waving, his wife and mother yelling for him, he blocked it all out.
“During my time on the Olympic team, playing next to Karch, I was a target,” Ctvrtlik said. “It was a skill I developed. I would have to concentrate from start to finish.”
Sometimes that transferred off the court and can be seen in his life now, too.
“Logic runs his emotions,” Dunphy said.
Dunphy remembers vintage Ctvrtlik after a flight to China with the U.S. team in the spring of 1988.
The plane went through some strong turbulence. At times, Dunphy thought it would go down. He felt relieved when the plane landed.
“I asked Bob, ÂWhat did you think of that?’ ” Dunphy said. “He said, ÂWhat?’ He was either reading a book or something. He didn’t even notice. I think he just has the ability to focus on what’s important.”
Ctvrtlik still uses concentration, attention to detail, as he works for the USOC. For the next two years he’ll be at work, trying to get the 2016 Olympics to Chicago. His home base is an office in Irvine, but he travels, racking up flier miles as he did points for the U.S. team.
When he worked for New York’s bid for the 2012 Olympics, he went to 43 countries in less than 18 months. But London won the bid.
“We got our clocks cleaned,” Ctvrtlik said.
But he’s back it at again, trying to bring the 2016 Olympics to Chicago. That means more traveling. More work. He’s determined.
But it comes at a price.
“It’s very hard on your family; that’s one of the most difficult aspects of this job,” he said. “I have wonderful children and a great wife. She is very understanding.”
Ctvrtlik’s wife, Cosette, also, “tries to keep all of us in line,” he said. That includes three sons, Joseph, 13, Erik, 12, and Matthew 9. They love their sports, too. They’ll most likely be successful in athletics, probably volleyball. Cosette is 5-foot-10 and athletic from her days as a cheerleader for Corona del Mar High. The three sons will likely be tall. Matthew is already 5-8.
Ctvrtlik’s around to keep them grounded, trying not to pressure them. But he reinforces the importance of their mother as he works for the USOC.
It’s a daily grind. Kisses and hugs good-bye and it’s off to try to win the Olympics for Chicago. Going from country to country pitching the Windy City.
Oh, if Josef could see his youngest son now.
“His father would be over the moon to know that one of his three sons is so beloved internationally,” said Cosette, who explained another reason why Ctvrtlik remains so determined in his work.
“[Josef] has a place in his heart,” she said. “He got those gifts [to work on an international scope] from his dad.”