Misty May and Kerri Walsh were once unbeatable in beach volleyball, winning 90 consecutive matches and 15 straight tournaments from July 2003 to last spring.
The streak ended after May pulled an abdominal muscle. Rivals now sense vulnerability in the world's top-ranked tandem, which will be digging for gold at the Athens Games.
"I don't see an aura of invincibility. I don't think they'll dominate like they have been," said Holly McPeak, who became the sport's winningest female player this summer.
McPeak and partner Elaine Youngs won a duel with 2000 Olympians Annett Davis and Jenny Johnson Jordan to earn the second American berth in Athens.
May played through her injury for three weeks in June, then sat out a month to let it heal. The 2000 Olympian said in early July she would rejoin Walsh at a tournament in Hermosa Beach, Calif., in late July.
"I'm just being conservative, playing it safe. We'll be fine," May said as she mingled with beach-goers at Belmar, N.J., a stop on the AVP tour.
But Walsh is a little nervous, fighting the daily urge to call her partner for an update.
"We're invested in each other, so what she's feeling, it affects me," Walsh said. "She puts me at ease when she answers my questions."
With May sidelined and Walsh playing with substitute partners, McPeak and Youngs emerged as medal contenders.
The pair won five tournaments between May 30 and July 10, including a victory over Walsh and Jennifer Meredith in the Belmar championship match.
American women have never won a beach volleyball medal.
Construction Nearly Complete
The unfinished construction of dust-choked venues stood as a symbol of Athens's troubling Olympic delays a few months ago.
Now the last touches are being made on the main Olympic complex. The stadium roof rises like a giant oyster shell. The grounds feature pools of water that shimmer in the night.
At the end of a three-year construction blitz, Olympic organizers are finally silencing the critics. Nearly all venues are ready for the Aug. 13 Opening Ceremonies or very close to completion.
Athens, it appears, has beaten the clock. But at a price.
Delays have left almost no time to test and troubleshoot vital security equipment. Projects to spruce up the city have been scaled back or cut. The unfinished work will be hidden behind huge banners. Ribbons and flags will be used to try to divert attention from the sidewalks that were never smoothed out or the dreary concrete buildings that didn't get fresh paint.
Security Is Operational
A vast network of street cameras, surveillance vans, underwater sensors and a blimp bristling with ultra-sensitive monitors was declared operational three weeks before the Games begin and a day after the Olympic Village opened.
The $312 million surveillance system was supposed to be ready May 28, but there were delays in installation, blamed on construction setbacks at various Olympic venues.
Overall security for the Aug. 13-29 Games is costing three times more than planned. Greece initially was to spend $600 million on security, but that has soared to a record $1.5 billion operation to thwart a possible terrorist attack.