Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings close era of beach volleyball dominance with third Olympic gold medal

August 8, 2012

Kerri Walsh Jennings and Misty May-Treanor returned to their Olympic home Wednesday night, stepping atop the medal stand to which they’ve held a deed for nearly a decade. It was different this time for the most famous athletes to don a two-piece.

For years, they’ve kicked sand in the eyes of all comers, and in that sense the London Games was just like the others. But this one wasn’t about just gold. It was equal parts coronation, celebration and a tearful, warm goodbye.

The setting sun turned the English sky into a beautiful blend of pastels above Horse Guards Parade, where the event was held. In the shadow of London’s majestic government buildings, with Big Ben and the London Eye looming in the skyline and situated just a bump pass away from 10 Downing Street and the Churchill War Rooms, nothing was more picturesque than Walsh Jennings and May-Treanor again spiking their foes in straight sets. In Wednesday’s gold medal match, they disposed of fellow Americans April Ross and Jennifer Kessy, 21-16, 21-16, for their third straight Olympic title.

“It feels like an out-of-body experience,” May-Treanor said afterward. “This one does feel a lot different. Kind of a numbness.”

Walsh Jennings will continue on, hoping for a fourth gold at the 2016 Olympics. But she’ll do it without May-Treanor, the most decorated female volleyball player the beach has ever known. She said Wednesday’s Olympic championship would be her final match.

“It’s time for me to be a wife. I want to be a mom and share time with my family,” said May-Treanor, 35. “All of us as athletes sacrifice more on the family end than people maybe realize.

“My mind says it’s time. My body says it’s time. And it’s the right time.”

So much has changed since the two paired in Athens and won gold for the first time. They’re older now, their last names have grown longer, their families larger. Following the 2004 Olympics, May-Treanor married a baseball player and Walsh Jennings a volleyball player. Walsh Jennings had two sons following the Beijing Games.

“The first two medals, I think was more volleyball,” May-Treanor said. “The friendship we had was there, but it was all volleyball, volleyball. This was so much more about the friendship, the togetherness, the journey. And volleyball was just a small part of it.”

Since that first gold, the two have become celebrities, in the process making their sport more than an Olympic sideshow. Not many Olympians, regardless of discipline, have so closely married longevity with perfection.

In three Olympic appearances, Walsh Jennings and May-Treanor have won 21 straight matches. They’ve played 43 sets and lost just one.

No one had to tell the Ross-Kessy duo what their foes have meant to the sport. “They put it on the map, really,” Kessy said. “For women especially.”

“I think everyone in the U.S. knows them,” she continued. “I’m sure everyone in the rest of the world knows them now.”

They’ve been featured prominently on Olympic broadcasts for three straight Games and helped grow the sport. Even Prince Harry came out Wednesday night to see what the buzz was all about. (“We wore our bikinis for him,” Ross said.)

What the prince and the rest of the world saw was a final act — the story ending in the same place it started, really — drawing to close an era for the sport. For Walsh Jennings and May-Treanor, their lives are fuller now, which makes it easier to appreciate this third gold medal. Getting to London was not as easy.

Walsh Jennings had to recover from an Achilles’ tendon injury that sidelined her for a year, and May-Treanor had to delay starting a family, deciding that it was worth one more run with her close friend.

“The past two years that we’ve shared together have changed my life,” Walsh Jennings said. “It really has. That sounds really dramatic and cheesy, but it has. We’ve come so far in these past two years, and we’re so close and so connected.

“Our competitive journey together is done. That’s a big deal. That crushes me a little,” she continued, choking up. “The next stage is going to be so fun. We’re going to be able to be girlfriends, sharing each other’s families and each other’s lives.”

Walsh Jennings, who will turn 34 next week, will continue in the sport with a teammate to be named later. And May-Treanor says she hopes to still help grow the sport, just not from the elite stage.

When Wednesday’s match was over and tears starting soaking the sand, the two players circled the stadium, and Walsh Jennings grabbed her two young sons, Joseph, 3, and Sundance, 2, who saw their mom and Auntie Turtle — May-Treanor’s nickname — win gold together for a final time.

“I don’t know if you can write this script the way that it turned out,” May-Treanor said. “But we believed.”

Rick Maese is a sports reporter for The Washington Post.
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