All-American final secures gold
LONDON -- The question was fair, a bit obvious and yet no one really knew what sort of an answer to expect.
Some 15 minutes earlier, Americans Jennifer Kessy and April Ross had upset Brazil's Larissa and Juliana, the No. 1-ranked beach volleyball team in the world, to earn a spot in Wednesday night's gold-medal match. But now that Kessy and Ross had won, half the questions after their victory were about the team they would meet in the final.
You may have heard of them -- fellow Americans Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings, the two-time defending Olympic champions. The faces of beach volleyball. The queens of the sand. Now that the final was an all-U.S. showdown for the first time in Olympic history, did Kessy and Ross feel like the "other" team?
"Not after that [match]," Kessy said. "No way. If anyone saw that game and said, 'Who's that other U.S. team,' then they didn't watch that game. We are our own team.
"Kerri and Misty deserve everything that they get. We know why they're famous and why they have two gold medals. But April and I are here, we're in the finals and it's not just the other U.S. team anymore."
Kessy and Ross entered Tuesday night's semifinal having lost to the Brazilian team nine straight times. After falling in the first set 21-15, they trailed in the second 14-12 after Kessy shanked a ball out of bounds. That's when they sat together in a timeout and decided enough was enough.
"I thought about all the times we had lost to them and it was like, 'This is not happening again,' " Kessy said. "It was just like, 'No. It's our turn. This is our time. We are siding out right now and winning the game.' "
That's exactly what happened. The Americans handed Larissa and Juliana their first loss in a set the entire tournament, winning 21-19. Then they won the third set 15-12. And that was it.
"I pictured winning this match in my dreams," Ross said. "But I didn't think it would actually happen."
And now the stage is set for the team that has always taken a backseat to the superstar tandem of May-Treanor and Walsh Jennings to play the role of spoiler. Just don't use that word in front of them.
"They've got their two gold medals," Kessy said. "We're not here to spoil anything. We're just here to battle and make them earn it."
The two American teams have met three times this year, with May-Treanor and Walsh Jennings winning twice. They say they're friends. That they have each other's phone numbers, email addresses and Twitter handles. They say that even though they live an hour apart, they've occasionally trained together. And they let it be known that May-Treanor's husband, Los Angeles Dodgers catcher Matt Treanor, has gotten Dodgers-Angels tickets for Ross. No matter what happens, they say they will "probably" have a couple beers after the match Wednesday night.
Still, when you listen to Kessy and Ross talk, you get the feeling that somewhere below the surface is a bit of a tension between the two American teams. Maybe it's jealousy. Maybe it's frustration. Maybe it's anger. Maybe it's as simple as a case of heated competitiveness, which is more than understandable at this level. Whatever the case, the gold medal won't be won easily.
For Walsh Jennings and May-Treanor, it will be the last match of the most successful team in beach volleyball history. They advanced to Wednesday's final with a 22-20, 22-20 win over China's Xi Zhang and Chen Xue. They trailed the first and second sets before coming back to win both and thus the match.
"We never panicked," Walsh Jennings said. "And that's what champions do."
But getting to that point since their return to the sport two years ago hasn't been easy. A few months back, after realizing they were both putting too much pressure on ending their careers with perfection, they met with a sports psychologist to figure out what was wrong. In brutally honest sessions, they both realized they shared the same fear: They were scared of letting the other one down. So they got over it.
And their psychologist gave them a handful of brain exercises to help them relax during stressful situations. One of them involves spelling a word when they feel anxious.
"I spell 'pass' 20 million times a day," Walsh Jennings said. "During matches it's P-A-S-S. It sounds so silly but I'm promising you it takes the anxiety away. It's like, 'Why am I spelling this?' Then, all of the sudden, you're good."
Walsh Jennings said that she and May-Treanor are as close now as they've ever been. They once thought the first eight years of their career were special. Now they realize it's the past two where they have connected the most. After a two-year hiatus following the Beijing Games, Walsh Jennings is now a mother. She insists she and May-Treanor have a greater understanding of the world. And each other. And on Wednesday, they will seek the perfect ending to their careers.
"I want to seal the deal that we're the best team ever," Walsh Jennings said. "Winning [Wednesday] will do that. And I want to do it for us. We've been on an amazing journey. We truly have grown up together. Misty has changed my life. I can't even tell you. I want to win to show that we are capable. That we weren't fooling ourselves that we could do it."
But standing in the way will be two Americans who don't want to hear the hype. They aren't the "other" team. They aren't spoilers. They're here to write their own history. After Tuesday night's win over Brazil, they were thrilled to know that they could bring their USA medal podium outfits to the court on Wednesday knowing that one way or another, they would be put to use. Although the plan is to wear them atop the podium.
"I don't want to be satisfied with just this," Ross said after Tuesday night's win. "We need to come in with the same mentality we had [Tuesday] and fight for the gold."