Thursday, November 23, 2017

Gary Shelton at the Games: Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jenning champions for a final time



There is such silliness surrounding them. Sometimes it can make the world forget what serious competitors they are.

In the middle of the circus, Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings were champions again. Forget the sand dancers and the pop music and the fan dressed like Captain America. None of that mattered.

In the middle of the stadium at the Olympic's beach volleyball venue Wednesday, May-Treanor and Walsh Jennings were at work again, molding another pair of gold medals. The rest of it was just a party outside their room. This was the last night of the May-Treanor/Walsh Jennings dynasty, and they were not here to do the conga.

They are deadly, these two. It is easy to get fooled by the bikinis and the beach and the jokes about Frankie and Annette, and the large Ferris wheel (the London Eye) in the distance. It is easy to wonder if the sport itself is serious. Until you watch them. There is nothing frivolous about the way they perform. They are May-Treanor and Walsh Jennings, the Thelma and Louise of beach volleyball, and on the sand, they are vicious.

May-Treanor and Walsh Jennings won their third consecutive gold medal Wednesday night, running their all-time Olympic record to 21-0. They are no longer the cute kids from the early days. They are married, and Walsh Jennings has two children, and May-Treanor has recovered from an Achilles injury.

Together, however, they are still a force on the sand. No one is more powerful than Walsh Jennings at the net. No one scurries and digs the way May-Treanor does. No one seems to win more big points at more important times. They are Stockton and Malone, or Montana and Rice, or Batman and Robin. Take your pick.

"I want us to be remembered as the best team of all time," May-Treanor said afterward. "I want kids to look at the video and say 'That's how I want to play.' "

Who can deny them now? Beach volleyball gets knocked around as not serious enough, but no one with eyes denies how good these two are together. May-Treanor is 35 now, and Walsh Jennings is 34 next week, and they don't overpower teams the way they once did. Still, those medals around their necks look gold again.

"This time it's way more special," Walsh Jennings said. "Just the journey we've shared has changed my life. That sounds really dramatic and cheesy, but it has. We've come so far in these last two years.

"This time, we had a really terrible year up until about a month ago, and we turned a corner. It was all emotional, all very mental, and we were in a place we never were before."

Perhaps that explains the tears. Walsh Jennings wept as if she never had expected to win another medal. She wrapped a flag around herself, and she brought her sons, Sunny and Joey, down from the stands to be with her and their Aunt Turtle, as May-Treanor is called. It didn't look routine. It didn't seem to feel like just another award ceremony.

This was their going-out-of-business sale. May-Treanor says she is done, and Walsh Jennings seems resigned to taking on another partner. But first, there was a night to savor, a team to appreciate.

"My mind says it's time," May-Treanor said. "My body says it's time. It's the right time. I want to be a wife (to Matt Treanor, a catcher with the Los Angeles Dodgers). I want to be a mom."

Volleyball will miss her. May-Treanor plays volleyball like a shortstop, covering the court, diving and digging, then rising quickly enough to take a return pass from Walsh Jennings and deposit the ball to whatever part of the court is open.

"She's the best there ever was," Walsh Jennings said.

Perhaps, but this tournament was a little rougher road than usual for the duo. They lost their first set ever in the Olympics to the Austrians earlier in the tournament. They squeaked by China in the semifinals. They left the impression they could be had.

But not Wednesday, not with gold on the line, not by fellow Americans Jen Kessy and April Ross. Kessy and Ross had the better service game, and during the tournament they had the better offense. Still, they lost each set by five points, 21-16, 21-16.

"We always look for little holes to get in there," Ross said. "They just gave us zero openings."

That's the legacy of May-Treanor and Walsh Jennings. They spent more than a decade kicking sand into the faces of their opponents. They owned their sport.

"The bond we have for each other is so special," May-Treanor said. "The first two medals, I think it was more volleyball, and the friendship 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.

"Two years ago, when we got back together (after a break following their 2008 gold win), we had this painting that we envisioned. Throughout the whole tournament, we were painting it, but we weren't finished yet. We finally finished it."

Soon, the carnival will resume. No sport is more boisterous, and no sport is so over the top in its celebration. Let the dancers dance, and let the music play.

Sad, isn't it, that the party will go on without them.

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