OK, I admit it: I like beach volleyball. In my circle, that's kind of an embarrassing confession, like telling strangers at a dinner party all about your current collection of Playmate of the Month pinups. The assumption is that anyone who digs this sport is a sad-sack butt man, a voyeuristic loser who wanders around town in a dirty raincoat hoping that some incompetent window display clerk has left a naked mannikin facing backwards. "When did they start playing in bikinis?" one friend suspiciously asked me after I admitted I liked the sport. "What's up with that?" My "friend's" not-so-veiled meaning: If you like beach volleyball, you're not a sports fan, you're a bottom feeder.
My esteemed colleague King Kaufman, also not a fan, raises a less ass-centric objection: He just doesn't find the sport that interesting. As he points out, it's much slower than hardcourt volleyball, and the play is repetitive.
King is right that the sand game is slower and more predictable than the hardcourt version. I've seen them both at the Olympics, and watching hardcourt after beach is like sticking your finger in a socket. It's a completely different game. A novice could wander into a beach game at the Olympics and get humiliated 21-0. If you wandered into a hardcourt game, you'd get killed.
But that doesn't mean that beach volleyball isn't a terrific sport. Because there are only two players, and because you can't run fast in sand, positioning and defense are key. There are way more touch shots and cut shots than on the hard court. Both players must be supremely versatile, able to dig and spike. And above all, teamwork is crucial. Both players must know where the other one is going to be at all times. They must know how to deliver a set to the other one in their sweet spot, the way a second baseman feeds the shortstop to start a double play. And they just have to have "it" -- that special teammate chemistry.
Plus, it's one of those sports that everyone can relate to. It's audience-friendly. There's a little-kid-at-the-beach quality about it that is endearing. It feels playful.
And there's another reason why I like it. Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh play it. And watching these ferocious competitors and selfless teammates play just never gets old.
Yeah, their butts are pretty great, too. But I'd watch these ladies play in burkas. Because what you're really looking at when you see them play is heart, and guts, and the indomitable will to win. And those aren't assets that can be shown off by any bathing suit.
In the gold medal game, May-Treanor and Walsh faced a talented and athletic Chinese duo, Tian Jia and Wang Jie. Tian and Wang were the last team to beat the Americans -- sweeping them, no less. Wang is taller than Walsh and a powerful spiker and defender, and Tian has an excellent all-around game. They are both stronger servers than the Americans. The Chinese were playing in front of their frenzied fans. And just to add a wild card into the mix, the match was played in a pouring rain. A strong Chinese start, a few aces, a slippery-ball mis-hit or two, a couple of errors, and the U.S. team could find it all slipping away.
And for a few minutes, the Chinese team and their screaming supporters may have thought that was happening. May-Treanor and Walsh fell behind 4-2 in the first set when May-Treanor missed an easy shot. Both Chinese were playing well and keeping the ball away from the lethal-spiking Walsh. And as usual in the tournament, the Americans were basically spotting their opponents a point or two a game on service alone.
No problem. The tide had risen, but it was about to run into an 80-foot-high sea-wall named May-Treanor and Walsh. May-Treanor started making play after play, driving the ball past the taller Chinese, showing off her dazzling assortment of cut shots and knucklers, and always coming up with critical digs when they were needed. Walsh started to get her kills. You could feel the well-oiled machine revving up. At the timeouts we saw the two women talking as they've done a thousand times before, unfazed, wiping their eyes of sand and sweat, discussing what they needed to do. If Shawn Johnson was America's adorable daughter, these two women were our rocks, our partners -- our sisters, best friends, wives. Only with better spikes and saves.
The Chinese were tough and stayed in the set, helped by two aces in a row, but after 16-16 the Americans brought the hammer down. They outscored the Chinese 5-2 to close out the first game, winning on a May-Treanor kill down the line.
The second set presented an opposite problem for the Americans. They were a gimme May-Treanor shot from taking a 4-0 lead that would have buried the Chinese, but she missed, and the Chinese ended up storming back. When China went ahead 15-14, you had to wonder if the squandered opportunity would come back to haunt the U.S. team. But May-Treanor and Walsh aren't hauntable. They stayed focused, kept playing their game. If you wanted to know how much respect these women have from their athletic peers, you only had to look at the intense face of all-time NBA great Jason Kidd, who, like Kobe Bryant and LeBron James before him, had come out to support the U.S. women. Kidd, May-Treanor's idol when she was young, looked like he was dying on every point.
But May-Treanor and Walsh weren't going to let him down. They're about as likely to crack under pressure as U.S. Grant.
The tide turned when May-Treanor made a crazy save of a Chinese kill, the kind only she routinely makes, to save 16-15 for the U.S. And a few points later when Tian rashly tried a playground shot, trying to lob a quick first shot beyond May-Treanor, the American made her pay, easily catching up with the insulting junkball and starting a play that made it 19-18. The Chinese never scored again.
When the last ball had smashed into the sand on the Chinese side, the two Americans fell into the sand, screaming and laughing and hugging each other, four years' worth of hard work and dedication paid off. That moment of pure happiness looked all the sweeter because they got to share it with each other. And as happens about four times a night during this nonstop emotional H-bomb they call the Olympics, I got choked up as these two grown women ran giddily around, the long years falling off them like dead leaves until they were just children again, hugging everyone in sight and shrieking and saying they were just happy it was over and suddenly jumping up and down with joy because they just remembered that they had done it, had kept their promise, had done the incredibly difficult thing they set out to do a long time ago.