Walsh and May-Treanor hit the heights

By JULIE JAG
jjag@santacruzsentinel.com

LONDON — Prince Harry may not have braved the brisk and late-evening match, but that doesn’t mean the queens weren’t on the court when Kerri Walsh and Misty May-Treanor closed out the first day of beach volleyball play and the first full day of competition at the 2012 Olympics.

Playing at Horse Guards Parade, a couple of double-decker bus lengths from Buckingham Palace, Walsh and May-Treanor showed glimmers of why they are the two-time defending gold medalists. They gutted out a 21-18, 21-19 win over wily Australian veteran Nat Cook and her partner Tamsin Hinchley in a best-of-three pool play match that ended just before midnight Saturday.

“We’ll see the royalty come out and they’re seeing volleyball royalty out there now,” Cook said after the match. “That team is beach volleyball royalty, and I’m just a five-time Olympian.”

To the chagrin of the crowd, neither team fully bared their bikini bodies for the 55-degree night match. The Australians stayed covered ankle to neck in leggings and T-shirts, while Walsh and May-Treanor wore long-sleeve black shirts over their bikini bottoms.

With the victory, the California pair — Walsh spent part of her childhood in Scotts Valley and claims Saratoga as her hometown and May-Treanor hails from Costa Mesa — narrowly kept intact their streak of now 15 Olympic matches without dropping a set. Also still intact is their will to become the first women’s team to win three straight gold medals.

“It’s nice to get the first one chalked off. We were amped up. We were like we’re here and we’re ready to go,” May-Treanor said. “Each match prepares us for the next.”

The team’s next order of business is beating the Czech team of Kristyna Kolocova and Marketa Slukova in another 11 p.m. pool play match Monday. Tonight, their compatriots Jen Kessey and April Ross will take Centre Court at 9 p.m. for a match against Argentina’s Ana Gallay and Maria Zonta.

The win provided some relief to Walsh and May-Treanor, who, despite their No. 3 Olympic ranking, have experienced some chemistry problems of late after eight years of Teflon-like teamwork. After winning their second gold medal in Beijing, Walsh and her husband, pro volleyball player Casey Jennings, gave birth to their sons, Joseph, 3, and Sundance, 2. May-Treanor, meanwhile, appeared on “Dancing With the Stars,” where she famously ruptured her Achilles tendon while practicing the jive.

When Walsh returned to the court in 2011, she did so with new partner Nicole Branagh. As London drew closer, however, she knew she had to have May-Treanor back on her court. The two reunited in February of this year, but they have struggled to reconnect the way they once did.

Some of that was evident against the Aussies.

“This one was tough, but I think the game of volleyball has grown so much that players keep getting better and better,” May-Treanor said, noting that of the four players on the court, three were gold medalists – Cook won in 2000. “But we knew we were going to get pushed.”

The slight favorite of the crowd of 10,437, the Australians mostly kept the ball away from the 6-foot-1 Walsh. Using smart shots and line-touching cuts, the Aussies pulled ahead of the U.S. pair on several occasions and tied the score 19-19 in the second set. Still, as May-Treanor threw her body across the court to pick up spike after spike on match point, which eventually ended with Cook in the net, Walsh knew she’d made the right choice.

“I love going to battle with her. I would not choose anyone else in the whole wide world I would rather go to battle with,” Walsh said. “She’s a warrior and she gets the job done. I have so much trust in her and she trusts me so much, I feel like I can take risks out there and that’s what you want in a teammate – someone who makes you feel comfortable. It was good. It was a really good start for us.”

And queens must be ready for battle, even if it means missing a chance to meet the actual Queen. Queen Elizabeth II visited the athletes’ dining hall Saturday morning, but May-Treanor and Walsh didn’t get a sitting with Her Majesty because her appearance conflicted with their practice schedule.

“It was a bummer,” May-Treanor said, “but we’re here for business.”

NOTES

  • The biggest volleyball upset of the day came in the first match of the day, 13 hours before Walsh and May-Treanor stepped onto Centre Court. The Chinese pair of Xi Xhang and Chen Xue, who won bronze in 2008, fell to Russia’s Anastasia Vasina and Anna Vozakova, 18-21, 21-14, 16-14. The Chinese came in as the No. 2 team in the Olympic rankings, behind Brazil’s Juliana Silva and Larissa Franca, who swept Natacha Rigobert and Elodie Li yuk Lo from Olympics beach volleyball newcomer Mauritius.
  • The U.S. men’s team of Sean Rosenthal and Jake Gibbs looked in prime form when they dismantled South Africa’s team in the penultimate match of the night. Rosenthal and Gibbs, who finished fifth in Beijing, defeated Freedom Chiya and Grant Goldschmidt, 21-10, 21-11.

Setting it straight

    Kerri Walsh and Casey Jennings have two sons. A previous version of this article indicated they had a son and a daughter.

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Categories: Athletes, Beach Volleyball, Events, Kerri Walsh, Olympics | Leave a comment

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