Image: Walsh, May-Treanor
Thomas Coex  /  AFP - Getty Images
Kerri Walsh, left, and Misty May-Treanor have not lost a match in their last 107 tries.
By contributor
updated 8/19/2008 3:24:57 AM ET 2008-08-19T07:24:57

Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh had just buried their Brazilian opponents in the sand to advance to the gold-medal round of beach volleyball. It was time to get off to interviews and drug tests and preparations for the final, but May-Treanor and Walsh still had business to attend to on the stadium floor.

They shook hands with the two referees, offered condolences and hugs to their conquered opponents, then made a circuit of the court, saying “Thank you” and shaking hands with all the volunteers who retrieved balls and raked the courts and cleaned the lines and put the awning up over their bench during time-outs. They literally chased down some of the volunteers from behind as they were leaving the court, not wanting them to get away without knowing how much their efforts were appreciated.

Fans lined the fences outside the venue, and May-Treanor and Walsh waved to them as they hustled to a post-match press conference and then to drug testing, promising to come back as soon as they were done.

Before they left the venue, they would sign autographs, pose for pictures and shake hands until everyone had their pictures and every hand had been shaken.

They’re huge stars in their sport, unbeaten in the Olympics and world championships since 2003, unbeaten anywhere in more than a year. And yet it hasn’t grown old for them and the intrusions of fans haven’t jaded them as it has so many athletes in higher profile sports.

“It’s a good problem to have,” Walsh explained with a bright smile when asked how she and her partner can give so much after so many years of demands for moments of their attention. “You get what you give.”

It is that attitude combined with their enormous talent and dedication that makes the 6-foot-2 Walsh and her 5-foot-9 teammate, May-Treanor, the best of what American sports can offer. They’ve gotten a lot from their sport and from life, and they give even more back.

Slideshow: Emotional moments I don’t know if they’re going to win their second consecutive gold medal. I’ve given up on making predictions here, where favorites tumble and the home team rises to previously unimagined heights and nothing except the phenomenal Phelps comes through as planned.

The crowd will be heavily behind the Chinese team of Tian Jia and Wang Jie, which is ranked second in the world to May-Treanor and Walsh and matches them in size. And the Chinese, pumped with adrenaline, could play out of their bikinis and do what no one has been able to do for more than a year — beat the best women’s beach volleyball team that’s ever lived.

Walsh and May-Treanor’s record says they should win. They’ve taken every biennial world championship since 2003 and the Olympics in 2004 and have been the AVP tour’s women’s team of the year for five straight seasons. They haven’t lost a match in more than a year — a winning streak that now stands at 107 straight matches. At the Olympics, they have yet to drop a set, rolling into the gold-medal round in 12 straight sets. In only one of those sets were they ever pushed beyond 21 points.

In the semifinals, they blew away a very talented Brazilian duo of Renata Ribeiro and Talita Antunes by scores of 21-12 and 21-14. In the second set the Americans were tied at 10-10 before closing it out on an 11-4 run. On match point, the Brazilians served the ball into the net, almost as if they realized they may as well get it over with instead of prolonging their suffering.

“To beat the U.S., we had to be perfect, and we didn’t do that,” said Ribeiro after the thrashing. “To beat them would be very difficult since they are just perfect.”

The two Americans, who teamed up back in 2001 and started winning the following year, took the praise and returned it.

“It’s an honor to be up here with these great players,” Walsh said of her opponents. May-Treanor predicted that the Brazilians will win the bronze on Thursday in their match against a second Chinese team of Xue Chen and Zhang Xi.

May-Treanor was already playing beach volleyball when Walsh switched from the indoor version of the sport to the beach. Although May-Treanor is at 31 just one year older than Walsh, the younger woman had idolized her as a player and becoming her partner seemed a dream.

A natural athlete from an athletic family, Walsh said her first few months on the beach nearly cured her of the sport. “I was totally awkward,” she said. “I’ve been an athlete all my life, and I’d never had that feeling.”

But they were a natural team. May-Treanor is even more athletic than Walsh, and their combination of speed and size made them winners. Their work ethic kept them at the top.

After winning gold at Athens four years ago, they took their game apart and rebuilt it, adding strategy and precision passing to a game that had reached the top of the world on raw athletic talent.

Both have married — May-Treanor to Marlins catcher Matt Treanor and Walsh to fellow beach volleyball professional Casey Jennings. And both say they want to start families after Beijing. But they’re not ready to quit, wondering aloud about what it would be like to travel with small children and continue to compete through the 2012 London Games.

"We're not done. We are absolutely not done," Walsh said. "We came here to win."

And then to sign autographs, thank the help and represent themselves and their country as few ever have.

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