Sinjin Smith: Star volleyball player’s success nets him new careers as model, actor

By Jae-Ha Kim
Chicago Sun-Times
August 26, 1988

Sinjin Smith, the world’s beach volleyball champion, has scored big with the sport. It has led to several other successful careers, including modeling, acting and writing.

Smith and 63 other top U.S. players will compete in Chicago tomorrow and Sunday in the 1988 USA Beach Volleyball tournament at Montrose-Wilson Beach, Lake Michigan between Montrose and Wilson. Play will begin at 9 a.m. and continue until approximately 5 p.m. both days.

Competitive volleyball got major exposure during the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles when the American men won the gold medal. But beach volleyball is a different sport, with two-man teams covering the entire court. Smith and his partner, Randy Stoklos, are the No. 1 team in the world.

“It’s hard to believe I get paid to play in the sun and ogle girls in bikinis,” Smith said with a chuckle. “Seriously, the great thing about volleyball is it’s a sport anyone can play.  It’s cheap, and you don’t have to be 19 to excel at it.”

Smith, 31, knows about excelling. At UCLA, he was a three-time All-American and two-time NCAA Champion in volleyball. He also was a member of the 1980 U.S. Olympic volleyball team, which didn’t compete because of the U.S. boycott of the Games.

Born Christopher St. John Smith, the 6-foot-3 Californian said he and his brothers and sisters grew up on the beach. While other kids were emulating their favorite football and baseball players, Smith said he idolized the volleyball players he saw battling it out in the sand.

Though he studied economics at UCLA, it was his athletic ability that won him a scholarship. Smith said he didn’t make the most of his academic opportunities there, which bothered him briefly when he realized the money to be made in the sport was dismal compared with other professional sports.

“I never really thought, `Maybe I should’ve become an economist,’ but it was a little disheartening to know that you could probably earn more money working in a fast-food restaurant than as a pro player,” Smith said in a conversation from his Los Angeles home.  “Now the prize money ranges from $40,000 to $150,000 per tournament, and it’s the highest it’s ever been. But players have to be resourceful if they want to support themselves in the sport.”

Last year, Smith earned $74,000 on the circuit, but his younger brother, Andrew, also a volleyball player, earned just $15,000.

Only recently did the prize money become competitive with other pro sports, so players have learned how to supplement their income.

Smith discovered the lucrative world of modeling eight years ago after a photographer spotted his brother jogging on the beach. Impressed with Andrew’s wholesome good looks, the photographer asked if he knew anyone else who would be interested in modeling for GQ magazine. Andrew suggested Sinjin, and both made their modeling debuts in the February, 1981, issue of the men’s fashion magazine.

When Smith is not spiking the ball or modeling, he acts and runs a clothing store that features Sideout, his personal sportswear line that is expected to gross $8 million this year. He also serves as president of the Association of Volleyball Professionals, and he recently wrote his first book, Kings of the Beach, a history of beach volleyball.

The pro tour circuit lasts seven months a year, and his heavy schedule of activities doesn’t leave much time to relax. But Smith said working at jobs he loves makes up for that.

“Between volleyball and modeling, I’ve seen most of the world,” he said. “I really don’t have anything to complain about. I can’t think of a better lifestyle.”

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