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Monday, June 25, 2012
Updated: July 6, 12:37 PM ET
May-Treanor, Walsh golden again?

By Jim Caple
ESPN.com

"We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender."

-- Winston Churchill, speech to the House of Commons, June 4, 1940

London's beach volleyball venue is just a short distance from Churchill's Cabinet War Rooms, which is fitting because Kerri Walsh and Misty May-Treanor will echo the great man's words at next month's Olympics. Having competed in France, on seas and oceans and islands, in streets and on hills and mountains in their long careers together, they will defend their gold medals by competing on the beaches of England.

The two won Olympic gold in Athens (2004) and Beijing (2008), but a third could be the most challenging of all. Since we last saw the duo in 2008, Walsh gave birth to two children, May-Treanor tore her Achilles, the two went their separate ways, Walsh paired up with another partner, and then they reunited and battled their way back to the Olympics. A dozen years after first teaming up, the pair is third in the world rankings behind Brazil's top-ranked Larissa Franca and Juliana Silva and China's No. 2-ranked Xue Chen and Zhang Xi.

"Misty said we have nothing left to prove because we have done so many great things, but I want to prove to the world that we're the best in 2012," Walsh says. "I feel like if we win a third gold medal, when we win a third gold medal in London, it will put us in that realm. We'll be the best there ever was in beach volleyball, and I just want that. I want us to do it because we're capable.

"I want us to do it because we just have it in us."

Walsh, 33, and May-Treanor, 34, are champions who never surrender. They fight on, growing confidence and strength as they go on to the end.

All you really need to know can be learned from May-Treanor and Walsh and beach volleyball. (Well, almost.)

Misty May-Treanor and Keri Walsh
Kerri Walsh and Misty May-Treanor won back-to-back Olympic gold medals in 2004 and 2008.

1. Turn off the computer/TV/iPad/video game and get outside

In the fall of 2000, Kerri Walsh was 22, finishing up at Stanford, fresh off a fourth-place run with the U.S. indoor volleyball team at the Sydney Olympics and wondering what to do with the rest of her life. Misty May was 23, had just finished a disappointing fifth at the Olympics herself as Holly McPeak's partner in beach volleyball, and also was at a career crossroads.

The two had known each other for a decade since their junior volleyball days. Sensing Walsh was burning out on indoor volleyball, May asked whether she would consider partnering on the beach circuit. Walsh was a little intimidated by the prospect of playing with May -- "I, like, had a nervous breakdown driving down [to try out], like I was playing with my Michael Jordan'' -- but she agreed. After all, how could she resist a fabulous pickup line like this one?

I think you'll really like your office.

2. We live in a wide, wonderful world

Walsh loved her new office. While every indoor volleyball court is basically the same, the beach volleyball circuit has included beaches in Phuket and Cape Town, an island in Finland, a cruise ship anchored in a Norwegian port, a lakeside in Austria, the front of Barcelona's National Museum and under the Eiffel Tower.

"We play in Gstaad, where they have a tennis tournament every year," May-Treanor says. "You can take a trip up to the glacier. It's almost like a town in Disneyland, with a little train that whistles as it goes by, and sometimes farmers will bring their cows into the main part of town. It's a really beautiful, picturesque place."

The two have stamped their passports full, playing beach volleyball in Athens, Paris, Rome, Berlin, Beijing and Moscow (where, May-Treanor jokes, you are not allowed to smile). At this summer's Olympics, they will play in London just a long serve from No. 10 Downing Street.

Beach volleyball players have bad days like athletes do, but thanks to the locales and scenery, Walsh says a bad day is a little less bad. "And when you have a great day, it's heaven."

3. Two is always better than one

Walsh and May-Treanor have enjoyed many heavenly days on the sand, but it didn't start out that way. To gain as much experience as quickly as possible, they took a crash course in competition by going directly to the international circuit their first year. They won one tournament and lost many, many more.

"The only way you get better is by getting beat, by playing against the best, and that's what we were out there doing," May-Treanor says. "We took that chance."

They got better. The duo won back-to-back gold medals at the 2004 Athens Olympics and 2008 Beijing Games. Along the way, they won 112 consecutive matches.

"We started when we were babies, we were puppies," Walsh recalls. "She had played a year on the tour, so she was like the old, wise one compared to me, who was a super greenhorn and just a rookie in every respect of the word. But we grew up in the lion's den. We trained two months together, then we went on the road playing on the world tour and we forged our bond and our team."

Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh
Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh first paired up on the beach volleyball circuit in 2001.

4. Sing a little, dance a little, laugh a lot ... enjoy life

One evening, while Walsh and May-Treanor were playing en route to their first gold medal in Athens, the venue announcer shouted with pride: "Beach volleyball is one Olympic site where you will never hear the words, 'Silence please!'"

That same night, the bikini dance squad performed to a playlist that included "Uptown Girl," "Centerfold," "Do Wah Diddy Diddy," "Proud Mary," "YMCA," "Volare," "Respect," "Tubthumping," "Booty-licious," "A Little Less Conversation," "That's the Way (I Like It)," "Crocodile Rock," "Satisfaction," "Tequila," "Hot Stuff," the "Rocky" theme, "Iko-Iko," the "Danube Waltz" and Barry Manilow's "Copacabana." The crowd even did the wave to the theme music from "Zorba the Greek."

Tiger Woods probably would have filed a lawsuit over such loud music, but beach volleyball's party atmosphere encourages it.

"You'll have some players that rile up the crowd, and the music is going, and it's time for people to loosen up and have a good time," May-Treanor says. "We don't want the crowd quiet. That's what it's all about. It's all about having fun and enjoying what you're watching and having the crowd enjoy what you're doing."

There is the same tension and drama in beach volleyball as other sports, but it is also the one Olympic event where there is an overwhelming pure joy of sport.

"That's what I love so much, the music, the cheerleaders -- that's how I grew up," Walsh says. "Sports should be fun. It should be celebrated. I think in beach volleyball, they do a really good job of capturing that spirit and translating it to the sport."

5. Always wear sunscreen

Walsh and May each married after the Athens Olympics. Walsh married fellow beach volleyball player Casey Jennings in 2005. May married Major League Baseball catcher Matt Treanor in 2004.

It isn't easy being married to a beach volleyball player when you're a baseball player. For one thing, the beach circuit and baseball season mean the two are separated much of the year; Treanor says in 2008 he saw his wife perhaps three weeks total from January to the end of the baseball season. He also has never been able to see My play in the Olympics because of the baseball schedule.

And then he has to listen to fans heckle him about the bikini thing.

Joe DiMaggio famously worked himself into a fury during the filming of "The Seven Year Itch," where Marilyn Monroe stood over a subway grating and the breeze from a passing train blew her skirt up to reveal her underwear in front of onlookers.

"You get harassed on occasion," says Treanor, now with the Dodgers. "We just came from Philadelphia, and they're not going to be too nice about your wife being in a bikini. It's just one of those things -- she just happens to be wearing a bikini while she's doing her job."

And what do the fans say?

The reality is it's really an athletic, beautiful sport. The uniform should attract people. What brings them back is the physicality and the beauty of the sport.

-- Kerri Walsh on beach volleyball's bikini uniforms

"Nothing you could print," Treanor says. "They'll say -- aww, I don't even want to repeat what they say. It's pretty crude, most of it. The people I acknowledge are the ones who talk as if there is national pride to it, that she's an Olympian and she represents our country and we're real proud of her. Those are the people I'll acknowledge and sit and talk to a bit. But for every one of those people, there are two who want to tell you your wife has a beautiful ass."

The thing is, women in other sports are almost as scantily clad, and no one makes a big deal about it.

"What we wear is functional," May-Treanor says. "I grew up on the beaches of Santa Monica and grew up in a bathing suit. I think it's funny that people look at our sport in that aspect when the gymnasts wear leotards and some of the camera angles they show are kind of interesting.

"The swimmers wear their bathing suits, and I did track and had to wear a singlet and briefs. My freshman year of college [playing indoor volleyball], I wore a long-sleeve shirt and bun huggers, which pretty much looks like a bikini brief."

Although Walsh says that, in some ways, the bikinis "delegitimize" beach volleyball, "the reality is it's really an athletic, beautiful sport. The uniform should attract people. What brings them back is the physicality and the beauty of the sport."

But at the Olympics, women will be allowed to wear shorts as a uniform option, in addition to bikini bottoms. The International Volleyball Federation made the amendment out of respect for some countries that "have religious and cultural requirements." Or maybe it was out of fear bikinis could cause the queen to faint. Either way, Queen Elizabeth will just have to make an allowance for Walsh and May-Treanor.

"We'll be sticking with the tried and true," Walsh says. "I just heard this was at the queen's request. I don't mind the rule; it's more inclusive, and it's pretty cool to honor her. I hope she doesn't think it's disrespectful."

Misty May-Treanor
Misty May-Treanor's appearance on "Dancing with the Stars" led to an Achilles injury.

6. And wear sensible shoes

Walsh and May-Treanor won their second gold medal in Beijing in dominating fashion. (They didn't lose a set.)

"I think it surpassed the medal in Athens because Kerri and I want to start a new chapter in our lives off the court," May-Treanor said after the gold-medal match. "Whether either of us comes back in London in 2012 or not, you never know after having a child. So, right now, I have to think this may be my last Olympics. I may come back, but I just want to start a family. First, I need to spend time with my husband."

"I'm so happy and very proud and humbled, and I hope we don't stop after we have babies," Walsh said that same afternoon. "I hope we keep going. I feel like we have unfinished business.''

But first there was new business. With two gold medals in hand, May-Treanor received the next greatest honor for a modern athlete: a chance to compete on "Dancing with the Stars." Having played barefoot on sand for years, with all the sudden jumps and stops and twists and turns inherent to beach volleyball, May-Treanor donned heels on the dance floor ... and promptly ruptured an Achilles tendon while practicing the Lindy Hop.

The injury obviously knocked May-Treanor out of DWTS, but it also had ramifications for her volleyball career. She missed a year of competition while the tendon healed. "With an injury like that, well, you don't know how you're going to come back, if you're going be able to play the same," she says. "And then my husband and I, we want a family, and Kerri started her family ..."

And well, the timing was always awkward.

For a while, May-Treanor wasn't sure she wanted to play. When she did, Walsh was out of volleyball while having her second child. So May-Treanor partnered with Nicole Branagh for a short time. Then she stepped away from the sport, thinking her playing days were done. Which is when Walsh teamed up with Branagh, and the two made plans to complete in London.

And then things got complicated.

7. Think with your head but listen to your heart

After seeing so little of his wife over the years, Matt Treanor was looking forward to spending 2011 with Misty. But his wife was having second thoughts about leaving volleyball. She was 34 and still capable of playing at an elite level. She didn't want her career to peter out the way it apparently was. She wanted another gold medal, and she wanted to win it with Walsh.

Play or retire? Go for gold or begin the second act of her life? May-Treanor so agonized over the decision, she once woke up crying at 3 a.m. It was then she knew she had to come back and play some more.

She informed her husband when they were together at spring training. The next day, she left to begin her training. As an athlete who spent years in the minors, Treanor understood and fully supported her decision.

"I would hope she would do the same for me, if I had been out of the game," Treanor says. "Actually, in 2009, I had a hip injury and was out most of the season. I was kind of up in the air [about playing] -- do I do it, do I not -- and she was like, 'If you don't, you might regret this,' and 'You sit down and think about it.' When I had mentioned to her that I wanted to go back and do it, wanted to go back to winter ball, go down to the Dominican Republic, she was very supportive of me, as well. It's definitely a two-way street for us."

May-Treanor says she didn't make her decision assuming Walsh would partner with her again.

"I just had to let her know how I was feeling and that I planned on playing -- whether it was domestic or internationally, with her or with someone else, that I planned on playing. I told her this. If she said, 'No I'm locked in. I'm sorry,' well, that's the way the business works. But I wanted to let her know before I showed up at a tourney and she says, 'I thought you were done.'

"I wanted to let her know and that she held the key to how that goes."

Walsh had the key. She also already had a partner. Branagh.

Beach Volleyball London
Posh venue: Beach volleyball will take over the historic Horse Guards Parade during the Games.

8. Relationships can be difficult

Beach volleyball partners don't sign contracts; they simply give their word to each other when they team up.

"In beach volleyball, that's all that we have," Branagh says. "You have someone's commitment or their word; to me, that's the same. I don't know if anyone has a contract. Maybe I'll have to do that in the future."

That's because beach volleyball partnerships are like any other relationship. Sometimes partners break up. Actually, quite often they break up.

"I'm a pretty loyal person, so each time I always thought this was going to be my partner, this one would be 'the one,' until they either dumped me or someone asked me to play and I dumped them," U.S. beach volleyball player Jen Kessy says. "I try not to look at others while I'm in a relationship.

"Usually people find a new partner before they dump their old partner. It's just a lot of, 'Hey, I see you guys are in this place. Do you want to play with me? I see you're not doing well, how's it going?' There's just a lot of talk, not behind people's back, but at tournaments and all that kind of stuff."

So May-Treanor sent Walsh a text saying the two needed to meet. May-Treanor asked to partner again, then waited for Walsh's decision.

"I had to be 100 percent certain she was in, that it wasn't going to be a fleeting thing," Walsh says. "I was really thoughtful about it; I never had to go back on my word before. I really care for Nicole and respect her so much, and I knew it would crush her. It didn't take me long to make the decision, but it was agonizing. I prayed on it.

"I knew I would hurt someone I really respect."

9. Don't break up via text

Athletes are released, traded or sent to the minor leagues all the time in other sports. The difference in beach volleyball is there is no third person to break the bad news. You must do it yourself.

"That's where the sport gets tough," Matt Treanor says. "When you change a partner, you have to go to that person and tell her. It's not like you can go to their agent and there may be a third party who says, 'Hey, you're out.' In baseball, when a general manager says you're out, you've got to go to the manager to tell you you're getting your release or sent down. This is a more personal thing."

Walsh called Branagh and asked to meet at a coffee shop. When the two arrived, Walsh walked up to Branagh and said, "I'm about to break your heart."

"I didn't see it coming because of the talks she and I had [about playing in London]," Branagh says. "I know from the outside looking in people will say I'm crazy for not seeing it coming, but I know what we discussed, so I didn't have any reason to think that would happen.

"It was hard. I mean, I wanted to go to the Olympics. Obviously, in that moment, I was shocked, so I just let it process. ... When I got home, it hit me like a ton of bricks. I pretty much had a cry session."

Branagh might have been quiet that first day, but a few days later, Walsh says she called and said they needed to talk, that the decision wasn't sitting well with her. "And she let me have it," Walsh says.

"I think women in general take things a lot harder," May-Treanor says. "Men will say, 'I'm not playing with you,' and still be friends. Women take a little longer to get over things. I think that's just the way we are in general."

Making the situation worse, Walsh broke the news just before the start of the season, which meant Branagh had barely a week to find a new partner.

"It's hard," Branagh says. "We say it's like a business, and it is. But it's also -- I don't know. There are other things involved. It's just a difficult thing. It was difficult for Kerri and difficult for me, and you just learn from it and do the best you can. ...

"I hope they do well in the Olympics. It was a hard time for me. You never know what the future holds. Who knows? Maybe we'll play together again one day. Every time we played together, we had a great result and had great tournaments together. That's the thing. In beach volleyball, that happens. Then, the next year, you're playing together with that person again."

10. True friends are more than just someone on Facebook

When asked why she decided to leave Branagh to play with May-Treanor again, Walsh says, "Because it's Misty. If it was anyone else, it wouldn't have been a second thought."

The two are so close, they consider each other family. They have played together, trained together, sweated together. They've lost together and won together. They've laughed together and cried together. They've shared the same rooms in hotels around the world. They've won gold medals, made commercials, yelled at each other, hugged, split up and reunited.

And now they will try to win one more medal together as they go on to the end.

"Our foundation is a foundation of love and respect, and that sounds so lovey-dovey, but it really is," Walsh says. "I feel like we can have the hugest argument, but it's OK, it's part of it, we know where we're going, and we know that we respect each other. I could be a jerk to you today, but she knows I love her, you know what I'm saying? It's so much deeper than sport."