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Beach Dynasty Ends in Gold

August 10th, 2012 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , ,

How could you not love Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings, when this was their reaction to every beach volleyball victory? (www.instyle.com/Getty Images; Landov)

I remember the day so clearly. Aug. 15, 2004. I was visiting my grandparents in Wisconsin, setting the table at my maternal grandparents’ house for breakfast. The 2004 Summer Olympics played in the background, but morning broadcasts rarely mattered, so I didn’t pay much attention.

I glanced up at the TV at one point, and some Americans I’d never heard of were playing beach volleyball. Misty May and Kerry Walsh. Who were they?

I’d always liked volleyball, my college “career” having ended just a year prior when its demands conflicted too much with my Ultimate off-season training. So I started to watch.

Almost instantaneously, I became a fan.

Long before they became the greatest women’s beach volleyball players ever, they still played with the confidence and swagger of an undeniably talented pair. But somehow they also showed genuine joy when they won, as if they couldn’t believe they had won again.

You had to root for them. They were magical, magnetic — it was impossible not to be entranced, attracted to their volleyball game.

Misty May: agile; creative; playful. Kerri Walsh: powerful; scary; tall.

I was smitten. They were sexy athletes playing a sport that tends to produce sexy athletes (both male and female, I’m not a misogynist).

Between their talent and their phonetic similarities (three syllables, split 2-1 between their first and last names), May and Walsh became superstars after winning gold in Athens. They brought publicity to a sport that desperately needs it.

Even after marriage lengthened their last names (another reason I’ll never root for the Dodgers), they just remained “Misty and Kerri.”

They carried that super-stardom with them through to Beijing in 2008, continuing a streak in which they not only one every match, they won every set. No team could beat them in the Olympics. Not once, and certainly not twice.

The two repeated as gold medalists, winning  in business-like fashion.

And then came London. From their first match against Australia, something was different. That undefinable electricity that had characterized their previous Olympics had perhaps finally disappeared, as all byproducts of athletic ability inevitably do.

They weren’t “Misty and Kerri” any more. They were “Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings.” They’d had kids, suffered injuries, split up and then reunited.

May-Treanor went on “Dancing with the Stars” right after Beijing, and her reunion with Walsh Jennings felt far more like a reality show plot than an honest chance at a third gold. And if Misty and Kerri had to manufacture (as reality shows do) the emotions they naturally displayed in the previous two Olympics, the emotions that made them appear so charming and genuine, were they even “Misty and Kerri” anymore?

Yes. Yes they were.

Sure, they hit a small stumbling block against Austria, losing a set for the first time in Olympic history. If anything, that loss, that tiniest speck of mud on an otherwise pristine Olympic legacy, cleared out the cobwebs.

Faced with elimination for the first time ever, May-Treanor and Walsh Jennings remembered how to be Misty and Kerri. Their hitting may have diminished a bit over eight years, but Misty and Kerri could still do something better than anyone else.

They could play defense. Kerri finished the 2012 Olympic beach tournament as the best blocker, Misty as the best digger. Other teams could out-hit the Americans, but they couldn’t out-smart them.

April Ross and Jennifer Kessy — the tournament’s best offensive duo — learned that the hard way in the finals, with Kerri’s height limiting their angles and Misty’s instincts putting her in perfect passing position every time.

Misty and Kerri denied their fellow Americans the honor of one-named monikers, leaving the silver medalists as just the last team to fall beneath history’s undoubtedly greatest beach volleyball pair.

With the end of “Misty and Kerri,” the burden of marketing beach volleyball falls to a younger generation of players. Someone else has to keep the sport in the public’s eye, because Walsh Jennings and her new partner in Rio (if she even qualifies) won’t likely be able to.

Ross and Kessy would seem to be the heirs-apparent to the throne vacated by Misty and Kerry, but their game just isn’t the same. You can watch a Ross-Kessy volleyball game, then stop watching it and feel no different.

I first watched Misty and Kerry eight years ago. I haven’t stopped watching them since.

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