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Rock-star team ends run on high note
It was anti-climactic, this bit of Olympic history. The serve landed out of bounds, well behind Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings. The ball bounced toward Big Ben and Westminster Abbey, and the 36-minute match was over in a flash. Walsh fell to her knees in the sand, May-Treanor outstretched her fists, and the rock stars of beach volleyball put an exclamation point on their best-ever legacy as a rock-star-worthy crowd that included Prince Harry and David Beckham cheered on.
The biggest stars in the history of beach volleyball had done it again, winning their third gold medal in the past three Olympics. This was Ted Williams hitting a home run in his final at-bat, Michael Phelps winning a gold medal on his final swim, John Elway winning a Super Bowl in his final game. With May-Treanor retiring from international play and Walsh moving on to play with a new partner, this Olympic duo had gone out on top. They’d beaten April Ross and Jennifer Kessy, 21-16, 21-16, in an all-American final.
“It's hard to stay on top,” May-Treanor said. “Winning back-to-back gold medals — it's very hard to go for three. I don't know if you could write this script.”
Reading through their Olympic script takes a suspension of disbelief. As a tandem, these two have never lost in Olympic play. Wednesday marked their 21st Olympic victory in a row. They’re the only duo in the short history of Olympic beach volleyball to win more than one gold medal. And a strong case could be made that May-Treanor and Walsh were battling more than just their American compatriots on this picture-perfect London night.
They were battling another American women’s tandem for the title of the greatest American duo in Olympic history.
Only Serena and Venus Williams — who won their third Olympic gold medal in women’s doubles a few days before to add to their two Olympic golds in singles — could possibly keep them from that crown.
Like the Williams sisters, May-Treanor and Walsh played Wednesday like they grew up in the same home. They seemed to be able to read each other’s minds. A first set went back and forth until, with it tied at 13-13, the legends ran away with it. The American crowd didn’t seem to know whom to root for — it was like a grandmother who has a grandson playing for each team in the state championship football game. But midway through the second set, it became clear to everyone that this was a coronation.
There was joy. And, yes, there was sadness.
“Now that our competition journey is done, it crushes me a little bit,” Walsh said afterward. “But now we're going to share our families and our lives, and I am so pleased we went out the way we did.”
They went out on top, the best ever in their sport and veritable Olympic legends. But there’s a problem for beach volleyball now: What to do now that Misty and Kerri are no more? This is like Michael Jordan retiring, a crucial moment for the sport. The Kessy-Ross tandem is over, too, as Kessy said she’s retiring after these games. Perhaps the new rock star super group in beach volleyball will pair the three-time Olympian Walsh and the fresh-faced Ross.
Maybe. But this moment, a stone’s throw from Parliament, wasn’t about the future. Wednesday night was about recognizing lasting greatness and saluting it.
“This is my last match,” May-Treanor said with finality. “Beach volleyball is not going to be my career anymore. It’s time for me to be a wife. I want to be a mom. I want to share this time with my family. All of us athletes sacrifice more of the family than people maybe realize. It's getting back to that. My mind says it's time, my body says it's time. It's the right time. It's time for me now to help the next generation.”
Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @ReidForgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.
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