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Saturday, August 4, 2012
Mind over matter for beach pair

By Alyssa Roenigk

Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh
Misty May-Treanor celebrates with Kerri Walsh Jennings after beating Marleen Van Iersel and Sanne Keizer of the Netherlands to advance to the quarterfinals.

This time around, a gold medal is all in their minds.

If two-time defending beach volleyball gold medalists Kerri Walsh Jennings and Misty May-Treanor make it three in a row, it's not their physical dominance that will carry them through their toughest Olympic competition yet. It's couch time.

For the past six months, Walsh Jennings (no hyphen yet -- she has yet to officially change her last name, but when she does, Walsh will become her middle name) and May-Treanor have been working with a sports psychologist to explore what was keeping them from winning tournaments and to rebalance their chemistry.

"Last year was a great season, all in all," Walsh Jennings said after defeating Marleen Van Iersel and Sanne Keizer of the Netherlands 21-13, 21-12 in Saturday night's round of 16. "We had two really tough injuries to deal with, took two years off and played with new teams. This year, we've been in a funk and it was all mental. We worked so hard to get through that and get to the heart of the matter. We let go of so much baggage. It's sports psychology at its finest."

That Walsh Jennings is so open about the struggles she and May-Treanor have experienced since partnering up again, and their work with a sports psychologist, speaks as much to their openness as it does to the prevalence of sports psychologists in today's locker rooms.

"There is a lot of heart involved in what we do," Walsh Jennings said. "Being good spiritually and emotionally and physically is so important, and that's where we're at. That is why we are playing the way we are right now."

After winning their second Olympic gold medal in Beijing, Walsh Jennings took time off to have two children -- sons Joseph and Sundance -- and May-Treanor was sidelined with a torn Achilles suffered during a practice session on "Dancing With the Stars."

At various times, both Walsh Jennings and May-Treanor partnered with Nicole Branagh but eventually decided to pair up again in 2011 and make a run at another Olympic title.

But this road has been the bumpiest. They returned to competition as a team in 2011 and felt that the chemistry and skill level was still there, but their confidence was lacking. And the game had changed. They no longer were the dominant force they were used to being.

"We had what is special about us right away, which is the love and respect and the work ethic," Walsh Jennings said. "As far as being great right away, absolutely not. We had four silvers last year. That was a gross, gross year."

This year has been just as up-and-down, but while Walsh Jennings said their play has made her "want to throw up," the goal was always to peak during the Olympics.

"It was more the mental conditioning we had to get back than the physical, and that's harder, way harder," she said, explaining that the game became more physical, from harder serves to pounding blocks, while they were away. "It takes time to create that flow again, especially when things changed so much in our two years off."

In that time, the field grew deeper, and that is evident here in London. This will be the hardest test of their Olympic careers.

"I think if you look at our road compared to everyone else, we have the most challenging road. We had that in [the] world championships and we let that one slip away. We're not going to let that happen."