USA Olympic Women's Beach Volleyball Roster 2012: Updated Analysis for Team USA
As evidenced by their decision to stage the sport at historic Horse Guards Parade, just a stone's throw from 10 Downing Street, London Olympic organizers clearly have a marquee role in mind for the women's beach volleyball tournament.
Question is, can the sport's marquee names—Americans Kerri Walsh and Misty May-Treanor—steal the show?
The two-time defending gold medalists will face strong challenges from Brazil and China, as well as an in-house gut-check from American up-and-comers Jen Kessy and April Ross.
Kessy and Ross just missed on an Olympic bid in 2008 but have made big waves on the international volleyball scene over the four years since.
Combine their rising fortunes with Walsh and May-Treanor's historic three-peat attempt, and London 2012 has the chance to become an instant beach classic.
Now, a look at the teams America will send to London.
Quick Facts: Jen Kessy and April Ross
History: First teamed-up in 2007. Played in more than 100 tournaments since.
Olympic Experience: None.
Accomplishments: Won 2009 FIVB World Championships, Won a career-high seven tour titles in 2009, Won 2009 USA Volleyball Beach Team of the Year
World Ranking: 5th
College: Both attended USC (Kessy class of '98, Ross class of '03)
Age: 35 (Kessy) and 30 (Ross)
Height: Kessy stands 6'0", Ross stands 6'1"
And They Can Dance: Ross is a master of the worm, while Kessy counts herself an expert in the shuffle (via NBCOlympics.com).
Playing Style: Kessy and Ross
Both standing around 6', Kessy and Ross represent the new wave of tall-tall combos sweeping beach volleyball.
Traditional beach strategy splits the court into front and back halves with a taller, attacking player at net and a shorter, defensive player running the baseline.
The tall-tall paradigm breaks from that template and divides the court into right and left halves, with both players attacking and defending on their side of the court.
That set-up allows Kessy and Ross greater versatility in how they attack. It also prevents a scenario where the traditional frontcourt player has to serve from the back line and then sprint to the net in order to defend a potential return.
The disadvantage comes on defense.
Although Kessy and Ross can both play at net, neither fits the mold of a true dig specialist. As a result, court coverage can prove more difficult.
Road to London: Kessy and Ross
The Kessy-Ross combo is all about continuity.
In a sport where tandems change with the seasons, the former Trojans have been together for five years running and have parlayed that cohesion into a growing swell of success.
In 2009, they took advantage of a hiatus by Kerri Walsh and Misty May-Treanor to post the best results of their career: seven tour wins topped off by a first ever beach volleyball world championship.
The 2010 and 2011 seasons were less fruitful in terms of major titles, but Kessy and Ross did capture a 2010 Grand Slam victory in Rome and landed on the podium at world tour events in Shanghai (2010 and 2011) and Brasilia (2011).
By the time Walsh and May-Treanor returned in 2011, Kessy and Ross were firmly established as one of the top five teams in the world. And although they couldn't top the reigning Olympic champs at the 2011 Beach Volleyball World Championships, they did take a set from them in the quarterfinals.
Kessy and Ross cemented their status as America's number-two squad this May with a fifth-place finish in the Beijing Grand Slam that sealed their first Olympic bid.
Quick Facts: Kerri Walsh and Misty May-Treanor
History: First teamed in 2001. Broke up 2009-10. Re-formed in 2011.
Olympic Experience: Won past two Olympic titles. Only duo to repeat since beach volleyball became an Olympic sport in 1996.
Accomplishments: By any measure, the most dominant team in beach volleyball history. Won two Olympic titles, three World Championships and 112 consecutive matches from 2007 to 2008.
World Ranking: 4th
College: Stanford (Walsh) and Long Beach State (May-Treanor)
Age: 33 (Walsh) and 35 (May-Treanor)
Height: 6'3" (Walsh) and 5'9" (May-Treanor)
Playing Style: Walsh and May-Treanor
Walsh and May-Treanor play in the typical tall-short mold, with the 6'3" Walsh attacking near the net and the 5'9" May-Treanor devoting more of her attention to defense and court coverage.
It would be a folly, however, to assume that May-Treanor can't play in the attacking role or that Walsh can't dig. No team packs a trophy case without versatility, and both women are exceptional all-around players.
This match report from late 2008 highlights the tandem's ability to switch roles, seemingly on command.
"Perhaps in an effort to raise the bar, the 5-foot-9 May-Treanor proved to be the dominant offensive force on Tuesday as she tallied 21 kills on 28 attempts for a 75 percent rate of success. Walsh, who is 6-3, had eight kills and the only four stuff blocks in the match."
When your defensive specialist can turn around performances like that, you can play almost any style you want.
Road to London: Walsh and May-Treanor
Shortly after the Beijing Olympics, the legendary Walsh-May-Treanor team ceased to exist.
Walsh started a family, giving birth to two sons over a one-year interval between 2009 and 2010.
May-Treanor logged an appearance on ABC's hit reality show Dancing with the Stars, where an Achilles injury incurred during rehearsal would subsequently force her off the sand for 18 months.
After various forms of convalescence, the duo reunited in 2011 and declared their intention to pursue an unprecedented third straight beach volleyball gold.
Perhaps to be expected, they haven't been their usual dominant selves since returning. At the 2011 Beach Volleyball World Championships, the duo finished second to Brazilian tandem Larissa and Juliana.
It was Walsh and May-Treanor's first lost in a major international competition since 2001. Even more telling, the pair lost at least one set in each of the last four knockout rounds after having not lost a single set in the 2004 or 2008 Olympics.
Second place is a remarkable achievement for a team fresh off a two-year break, but they don't give out gold medals for comebacks.
For Walsh and May-Treanor to make history, they'll need to raise their game in London.
America's best will get all they can handle from a rapidly improving international pool. Here are three teams to watch.
Larissa and Juliana (Brazil): The defending World Champions were the first team to beat Walsh-May-Treanor at a major international competition in ten years. They might have made noise in Beijing if an injury hadn't forced Juliana to withdraw.
Xue Chen and Zhang Xi (China): The current world number one and defending bronze medalists are led by 6'3" attacking phenom Xue Chen (still just 23). Known in China for her powerful game and stunning looks, Xue was named one of Asia's "30 Sexiest Athletes" by CNN International.
Talita and Antonelli (Brazil): Talita and Antonelli proved they can hang with the best when they topped Walsh and May-Treanor at an April tournament in Brazil. Talita played in Beijing with Renata Ribeiro and finished fourth. This will be Antonelli's first Olympic appearance. The duo currently sits third in the world rankings.
Best Case Scenario
For Walsh and May-Treanor:
Proving again why they're the best to ever grace the beach, Walsh and May-Treanor shake the rust in time for another golden Olympic run. They don't dominate as in year's past—even dropping a set or two—but their big-match experience is too much for the sport's rising stars. In a title-game tilt against Larissa and Juliana, the duo avenges its World Championship loss and adds the perfect flourish to one of the great runs in Olympic history.
For Kessy and Ross:
Flashing the form that served them so well in 2009, Kessy and Ross dominate pool play and earn a seed that keeps them clear of either Brazilian squad in the early stages of the knockout round. After earning some confidence with an easy quarterfinal win, they shock Larissa and Juliana in the semifinals and finish with a silver medal.
Worst Case Scenario
For Walsh and May-Treanor:
From the group stage it's clear: Walsh and May-Treanor aren't their old selves. Their movement isn't crisp, their defense is lackluster and their challengers are no longer in awe. After gutting through a tough quarterfinal match, the golden girls drop their semifinal tilt en route to a disappointing bronze medal.
For Kessy and Ross:
Inconsistency rears its ugly head, as an unexpected loss in the group stage leads to a bad draw and a quiet quarterfinal exit.
For Walsh and May-Treanor:
Great as they are, Walsh and May-Treanor have never had to claw through an Olympic tournament the way they will have to in London. And I'm not sure the cakewalks of the past prepare them all that well for what they'll face this summer. This will be a grind, and this pair isn't young enough to survive unscathed. Talent and confidence will carry them to the finals, but wear and tear will catch up to them in a title-game loss.
For Kessy and Ross:
Kessy and Ross are a talented duo, but they aren't peaking. The triumphs of 2009 seem like a long time ago, and so-so international results over the past year suggest the American newcomers are headed for a fifth-place finish.