Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 9, 2012

Faces Of Their Sport, Golden To The End

Perhaps because so many of the events that are contested at the quadrennial Summer Games exist mostly on the periphery of most sports fans’ focus, the television coverage often spends as much time on the back stories of the athletes as on the actual competition. Or maybe it’s that way because NBC and its cable affiliates have so very many hours to fill, or because their necessary reliance on tape delayed broadcasts means that many viewers are already aware of the results before they tune in. Whatever the reason, one can count on seeing plenty of features extolling this or that competitor’s efforts to overcome poverty or oppression or injury or some heart-wrenching combination of all three to earn the right to compete for Olympic glory. While the human interest stories are certainly genuine and often compelling, the Olympics are in the end a sporting event not a Lifetime Channel movie; so there is something to be said for those moments when the focus is squarely on the competition, and when great athletes seize the day with their tenacity and skill.

It was a great moment when Scotland’s Andy Murray, who just last month fell to Roger Federer in four sets in the men’s final at Wimbledon returned to the All-England Club and routed Federer in straight sets to claim Olympic gold. Murray rode a wave of national pride through all six of his matches, dropping but a single set. But with a record of disappointment in Grand Slam finals, even his most ardent English boosters could scarcely have hoped for the dominating 6-2, 6-1, 6-4 performance that Murray produced on the grass at Centre Court last Sunday.

So too it was a masterful performance by a great athlete when Jamaica’s Usain Bolt became the first man to sprint to victory in both the 100 and 200 meters in consecutive Olympics. While it is the nature of track that times will keep getting faster, even if only by thousandths of a second; and that four years from now someone else will be given the title of “World’s Fastest Human” in Rio de Janeiro, Bolt ran into history on Thursday. Even if someone eventually matches his feat, he will always be the first to have won the double double.

If Murray’s or Bolt’s performances were not enough to impress a jaded fan, then surely the feats of Michael Phelps were enough to leave one awestruck. Competing in his third Olympics Phelps won six more swimming medals including four gold. With eighteen gold and twenty-two total medals, Phelps retires as the most decorated Olympian of all time.

But as grand as the individual performances of the tennis player, the sprinter, and the swimmer were, perhaps the most remarkable display of tenacity and skill so far in the London Games came in a team sport. It was a performance by two women who for the casual fan have quite literally been their sport since they first teamed up in 2001 and then burst onto the broader consciousness at the 2004 Games in Athens. For some fans beach volleyball was about little more than bikinied young women and hunky young men when it became an official Olympic sport in 1996. Through a partnership that lasted more than a decade, Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings played the game with a dominance that led one to think they could have won wearing Burberry raincoats.

In college May-Treanor led Long Beach State to a Division I national championship in regular indoor volleyball, setting an NCAA tournament record in 1998 with twenty service aces. During the same period Walsh Jennings was up the California coast a bit at Stanford, where she played on two national championship teams and was a four-year first team All-American. She competed at the 2000 Sydney Games as a member of the U.S. women’s indoor volleyball team. But it was after both switched to the sand and paired up that their joint careers took off.

They played for two years on the international tour, winning the championship in 2002; then joined the U.S.-based AVP tour in 2003. They won “Team of the Year” honors in their first season, going 39-0 while winning eight tournaments. Their winning streak had risen to ninety matches by the time they arrived in Athens for the 2004 Games. They swept through the tournament, defeating Brazil for their first gold while dropping not a single set. They would ultimately win 112 consecutive matches before finally tasting defeat later that year at an AVP tournament in Cincinnati. In Beijing at the 2008 games, they again swept through the field without losing a single set and overcame both their opponents and the home crowd when they beat China in the gold medal match. They became the first beach volleyball team, either men’s or women’s, to repeat at Olympic champions.

For many athletes and many teams, that would be more than enough. Since Beijing Walsh Jennings took time off to give birth to her second child and May-Treanor went through a lengthy recovery from a ruptured Achilles tendon. When they decided to come back together and early this season placed fifth in one tournament and ninth in two others, it might have been easy to conclude that this was going to be the all too familiar story of star athletes unwilling to concede the inevitable impact of aging. But anyone thinking that would have badly underestimated both the Turtle (May-Treanor) and Six Feet of Sunshine (the 6 foot, 3 inch Walsh Jennings).

In central London, within a few blocks of Big Ben and Westminster Abbey, the massive plaza at Horseguards Parade was converted into a little piece of southern California for the Olympic tournament. May-Treanor and Walsh Jennings came into the tournament as the third seed, behind teams from Brazil and Japan, and just ahead of Americans Jennifer Kessy and April Ross. Once again the veteran team from the U.S., far and away the most recognizable players in their sport, stormed through the preliminary round. Their only concession to the ravages of time was that they did finally drop a set in their third match. In the medal round they displayed their mental toughness, rallying against the second-seeded Chinese. After falling behind 13-7 in the first set, the Americans came back to win 22-20, 22-20. In the other semifinal Kessy and Ross upset the top-seeded Brazilians, setting up an all American final on Wednesday night.

In both sets the challengers were able to keep up with May-Treanor and Walsh Jennings for a time, even leading 11-10 in the first and 9-8 in the second. But both times the defending champions eventually pulled away largely by displaying their defensive prowess. The best blocker in the sport, Walsh Jennings used her considerable height advantage time and again, going above the net to deflect a spike attempt back into the face of her opponent. If a ball did get through, then the best digger of all time May-Treanor would somehow be in just the right place in the nick of time to punch it back up into play before it hit the sand. After winning the first set 21-16, May-Treanor and Walsh Jennings led 18-15 in the second. At the end of a rally Misty stroked a delicate touch shot just over the net, out of reach of both Kessy and Ross. Moments later Kerri leapt to block a spike attempt by Ross, and match point was at hand. An ace by Kessy made it 20-16, but her next serve sailed long, and the two women who comprise the best beach volleyball team ever had overcome the odds to win their third consecutive Olympic championship.

Misty had already announced her intention to retire after the Olympics, and confirmed that immediately after the victory. Kerri may play on, though it is hard to imagine her with another partner; and in any event she too has confirmed that this was her final Olympic appearance. Three gold medals, a 42-1 set record at the Olympics, that incredible 112 consecutive match record from their early years together, May-Treanor and Walsh Jennings have done it all. Through eleven years together they took a fringe sport and brought it to a London climax with 15,000 cheering fans on hand; a final match that was shown in prime time on the main network back home. Along the way, they also made us all appreciate something far more significant than the bikinis.

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Responses

  1. Nice post—still like the bikinis!


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