As the 2012 Summer Olympics kick off on Friday, the Americans will hit the sand, looking to claim gold in men's and women's beach volleyball for a second consecutive time. Team U.S.A. appears to be in top shape for London, boasting the No. 1 and No. 5 ranked men's tandems, as well as the No. 4 and No. 5 women's pairings.
Still, the field is wide open this time around, and the red, white and blue will foment a slew formidable competition as it attempts to defend its titles.
For the sport of beach volleyball, the Olympic Games are the pinnacle of intensity. This summer will offer no shortage of enticing action. a
Check out who poses the biggest threat to America's sand supremacy.
Jake Gibb and Sean Rosenthal comprise the world's top beach volleyball team, but no one is a lock for the gold.
Perhaps their toughest competition lies in Brazil, the country that has claimed the most gold medals in FIVB World Tour play this year. Alison Cerutti and Emanuel Rego are the world's second ranked partnership and will be a tough-out in London. The pair took home the bronze in '08, and have already won two of 2012's six FIVB grand slams.
While ranked second in the technical standings, Alison-Emanuel hold down the top spot in Olympic qualifier standings. Gibb-Rosenthal is slated at No. 4, while fellow Americans Rogers-Dalhausser sit at No. 2.
German duo Julius Brink and Jonas Reckermann has surged to third in the qualifier standings with over 6,000 points. Cunha-Ricardo, winners of two FIVB events this season will be another tough team to face.
The Brazilians' four top-15 ranked pairs top all other countries.
The Netherlands' Nummerdor-Schuil are the most recent winners in FIVB action, taking home the gold at the A1 Grand Slam last week. Perhaps their momentum can carry over to London; they rank fifth in Olympic qualifying points.
Only three countries have produced winners in the World Tour this year. The duos from Brazil, the Netherlands and the U.S. will be preliminary favorites. But another dark horse lies in Poland, where Fijalek-Prudel tie for No. 7 in qualifying points.
While the U.S. men lay claim to four FIVB championships thus far, American women have only won one event in 2012, when Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh notched a victory in the 1 to 1 Energy Grand Slam.
May-Treanor-Walsh, gold medalists in 2008 and '04, will be heavy favorites this year as well. However, both have seen time away from the game, with Walsh giving birth to two sons, and May-Treanor continuing to rehab a ruptured Achilles' tendon.
Who could knock off the defending champs? May-Treanor-Walsh sit third in Olympic standings, behind Brazil's No. 1 squad of Larissa Franca and Juliana Silva and China's second-ranked Xue Chen and Zhang Xi.
Larissa-Juliana have two World Tour wins under their belts, while Xue-Zhang Xi boast three. America's second-ranked pair, Kessy-Ross, should be in the mix as well.
Like the men's side, the women's field sees three teams from Brazil fall in the top-10. Another sleeper could be Italy's Cicolari-Menegatti, an up-and-coming team that won last year's European Championships. While neither have seen any Olympic playing time, Menegatti is FIVB's Most Improved Player.
The Bottom Line
American men and women have a feasible shot at the gold this summer, but things won't be easy. U.S. women, in particular, face a grueling field and a bevy of question marks.
Still, anything can happen in the Olympics, and until proven otherwise, the defending champs get the benefit of the doubt.