A Good Day at the Beach

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ADAM BUTLER / AP

Kerri Walsh and Misty May of the U.S. celebrate after beating Brazil in the gold medal beach volleyball finals Tuesday

Throw some sand on the ground, pipe in a little Beach Boys, pit the world’s best beach volleyball players against each other in elimination rounds, and you end up with one heck of a way to spend an evening at the Olympic Games. And oh yes, in case the fans didn’t know that it’s a party, add in a few bouncing bikini girls with dance routines that are carefully choreographed for maximum jiggle effect.

Yes, it’s a circus, and yes, it’s like no other competition at the Olympics, where lifetime dreams and years of training often seem to burden more than uplift the athletes, but that’s the point. Beach volleyball was born on the sun-drenched shores of California, in communities where the beach is not just a place but an attitude and a way of life. So you won’t find any of the top players complaining about all the hoopla. In fact, they relish the energy from a crowd that is moving and shaking. “This is what is special about our sport,” says Kerri Walsh of the US, who is unarguably the best volleyball player the sport has seen since its debut at the Olympics in 1996. “If we didn’t have the music and crowd cheering, we’d be wondering, ‘where is everybody?’”

Walsh, along with partner Misty May of Long Beach, Cal., were the top ranked team in the world coming into Athens, thanks to a string of 15 consecutive victories last year. The pair made history on Tuesday by becoming the first U.S. team to win an Olympic gold medal in beach volleyball. They would have been the first to win any medal for the U.S. in the sport but were beaten to that honor by about an hour by teammates Holly McPeak and Elaine Youngs, who won bronze in a tough three-set match against Australians Natalie Cook and Nicole Sanderson. It was a particularly poignant victory for McPeak, who, at 35, is one of the grand dames of the sport and helped build up the professional tour in the U.S. “After playing for so long, this is my 14th season, I’m the old lady,” she said. “In the U.S., I’m the winningest player on the tour, but the only thing missing was an Olympic medal. Now I have it and I’m really proud.”

May-Walsh had a slightly easier time with their match in front of a capacity crowd at the 7300 seat stadium almost 20 minutes later. Dispatching Brazilians Adriana Behar and Shelda Bede in straight sets, the duo earned Olympic gold without giving up a set in the entire competition. “Misty and I worked our butts off for the past three years, and we’re proud and happy to be on the podium in that top spot,” said Walsh. Although they were dominant in the 2003 season, May stepped off the beach for a month this summer due to an abdominal strain, and it wasn’t clear whether she would be in top form in Athens. “A lot of people doubted that I would be back in time, and it felt great to shove it in their face that I was back,” said May the day before the gold medal match. May dedicated her Olympic quest to her mother, who died two years ago of cancer, and released some of her ashes on the court after finally securing the gold. “I wanted her to be here, and I just let the wind take them,” she says.

In a sport known for its partner-swapping and back-stabbing, May-Walsh stand out; in 2000, both were in Sydney, but playing for different teams, and both came up short of a medal. May was partnered with McPeak, and finished fifth on the beach, while Walsh’s indoor volleyball team came just short of a bronze. When the two finally paired up in 2001, they quickly moved up the World Tour rankings, and became the first US team to win the world championships last year. Completely in sync on the court, the two lead their own lives off the sand; May is planning to get married in November (Walsh is a bridesmaid), and Walsh remains close to her family, including her two sisters and brother.

The secret to May-Walsh’s success on the beach is their defense at the net and their coverage of the back court; Behar and Bede noted that they couldn’t get anything past the 6’2” Walsh. The Brazilians were able to snatch seven more digs than the Americans, but May-Walsh blocked five opposing shots while Behar-Bede stopped none. “We really wanted the gold but we lost to a better team,” said Behar. “It's not good to lose but I am happy for our success.”

And their success is good for the sport of beach volleyball, which is gaining in popularity with each Olympic appearance. And now, with the Olympic gold and bronze in the hands of Americans, the sport may attract more younger players that could help Americans remain on the podium in Beijing and beyond.