-- Put aside the thumping music, the dancing girls, the pleas from the public address announcer for the crowd to produce "the fastest wave in Olympic Games history." The party is on the periphery, but for those women in the sand, this beach volleyball is, somehow, serious stuff.
So when the final ball fell Tuesday night at the Beach Volleyball Center, when Misty May and Kerri Walsh basically whiffed on their celebratory hug, falling instead to the sand, all the jokes about how there are more beers than cheers at the average beach volleyball match vanished for a moment. May and Walsh, two California girls who were high school rivals, did something that no other American women had done in the sport that grew up on the California beaches. They won an Olympic gold medal.
May and Walsh, the pre-tournament favorites, easily disposed of the Brazilian team of Adriana Behar and Shelda Bede, needing just 43 minutes to sweep the match, 21-17, 21-11, relegating Behar and Bede to silver for the second Olympics in a row. In doing so, May and Walsh promised to capitalize on their Olympic publicity -- shots of the beautiful venue on NBC, not to mention scores of articles about the party atmosphere at the matches -- to spread the idea that having fun is okay, but working hard is, too.
"People don't think beach volleyball is a legitimate sport where you can make money or, in our case, have a career," May said. "And the medals represent the hard work and dedication that we have to [have]. This is a nine-to-five job for us. We make sacrifices just like everybody else does. We're rewarded for that."
American beach volleyball was rewarded with its biggest night since the sport made its Olympic debut in 1996 in Atlanta. In the bronze-medal match that preceded the championship, Holly McPeak and Elaine Youngs beat the Australian team of Natalie Cook and Nicole Sanderson, 21-18, 15-21, 15-9, giving the U.S. women two medals.
Four years ago in Sydney, it was May and McPeak who were considered among the favorites. But a fifth-place finish sent the pair reeling, and they split soon thereafter. That led May to seek out Walsh, who had once been so awed by May that she asked for her autograph after a high school match. The awe quickly dissipated into chemistry.
"Misty and I, we work well together," Walsh said. "We just fit."
Tuesday night was merely the culmination of what has happened since the partnership formed. At one point, the pair ran off 90 consecutive victories on the American and international tours. The only cause for concern coming into the Olympics was a pulled abdominal muscle May suffered this spring. She sat out for four weeks, Walsh played with a few other partners, but May returned.
"A lot of people had doubts," May said. "I kept telling people I had no doubts. . . . I told people I would be fine. I came back."
And she was in fine form by this tournament, in which May and Walsh won 14 sets and lost none. Their dominance was such that other teams grew almost reverent.
"I can honestly say they form the best team ever in beach volleyball," Youngs said. "I mean, it's no secret."
It certainly isn't now. The Brazilian fans, who appear to love this sport nearly as much as their beautiful game of soccer, were their flag-waving, ole-chanting selves, and not a seat in the stadium was empty. But there were small bands of American fans as well, toting the stars-and-stripes, trying to be heard over the green-and-yellow clad Brazilians.
Because May and Walsh allowed Bede and Behar no rallies -- and because they closed the match by winning eight of the final nine points -- those Americans were able to celebrate, first to the strains of Lenny Kravitz's "American Woman," then, after the final point, to Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A."
The only flaw, perhaps, was the hug, in which the players tried to jump into each other's arms, yet somehow missed. Instead, they fell to the sand and lay on top of each other. People may poke fun of their sport, arguing it's better-suited for backyards than Olympic Games, but neither Walsh nor May cared as they frolicked in the sand.
"It's such a great atmosphere," Walsh said. "It's so fun. People need to understand that they can have fun, but that they can put work into it and be rewarded, too."
So they celebrated by jogging around the stadium, slapping hands with whomever would slap back. Then they climbed into the stands, reaching their families, hanging precariously in their bikinis some 10 feet above the sand. Hugs, smiles, the whole bit. Walsh even took an American flag and, with no place else to put it, shoved it into the back of her bikini bottom. There is no other Olympic venue at which such a thing would happen.
Eventually, May came down from the stands and headed for her backpack, which lay off to the side of the court. May's mother, Barbara, died of cancer in 2002. Her father brought some of Barbara's ashes to Athens in a prescription medicine bottle.
"Everybody else's family is here," May said. "So why can't I bring my family?"
Yet she left her family behind as well. The idea was to sprinkle Barbara May's ashes in different places around the world where May played. But after the injury this year, May didn't travel as much. After each match here, May's father would tell her, "Sprinkle some. Sprinkle some."
"Wait," May responded. "Wait."
But after celebrating, May rummaged through her bag, and pulled out the bottle. She cracked it open, and with a long wave of her arm, she cast the ashes into the breeze and the sand.
Later, when she had her medal, she noticed something. May has a tattoo of an angel with the initials "B.M." on her shoulder, a reminder of her mother. When she first glanced at her medal, she was struck. An angel is embossed in the gold.
"I still feel like it's a dream," May said. "If I dreamt what it would be like, this is exactly the way it would be."