There are so many “best ever” debates in sports, but there is no debate at all when it comes to women’s beach volleyball.
Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh are the greatest tandem to ever sink their toes into the sand, and it all came to a glorious end on Day 12 of of the 2012 Summer Olympics.
London, of all places, is where the biggest match in the history of the sport went down.
May-Treanor and Walsh, the beloved queens of the beach, won their third consecutive gold medal in dominating fashion, defeating compatriots April Ross and Jennifer Kessy 21-16, 21-16. There was no doubt who the better team was, and that’s saying something considering Ross and Kessy were world champs in 2009.
For many who were tuned in, May-Treanor and Walsh have only recently become relevant. Maybe it was seeing Misty on Dancing With the Stars in 2008 that first brought her to your attention. Maybe it was just this week, when you found out that they were going for a three-peat.
The team’s legend, however, has been building for over a decade. Now that they’ve capped it off so well, we can look back on how it unfolded.
Legend has it that Walsh, who is younger than May-Treanor, asked her future teammate for an autograph as a high school sophomore. She would go on to face May, who starred at Long Beach State, on the hardwood as a four-time All-American at Stanford.
After college, both would end up on the national team for brief stints. May-Treanor soon fled for the beach, where her dad, Butch, had been a legend in the sport’s early days and paired up with the great Holly McPeak to win three FIVB (Fédération Internationale de Volleyball) tournaments in 2000 and earn enough points to qualify for the Sydney Olympics.
Walsh, meanwhile, was in Sydney as a member of the indoor national team. May-Treanor/McPeak took fifth in Sydney, while Walsh and the indoor squad also failed to medal.
In 2001, the two played together for the first time, taking seventh in Clearwater, FL, a tournament on the now-defunct BVA. The focus shifted internationally to the FIVB and the duo started to figure it out, medaling in four tournaments and taking ninth at the World Championships.
Hitting Their Stride
All of a sudden, they turned dominant. The team won the FIVB points championship in 2002, finishing first in five tournaments and second in another three. The FIVB, mind you, features the best teams from around the world.
The 2003 season was spent on both the AVP and FIVB tours. On the domestic front, they went a perfect 39-0, while posting a 52-4 international mark. There was no question who the favorite would be at the 2004 Olympics.
Sweet in Sydney
After having an 89-match winning streak snapped earlier in the summer, May-Treanor and Walsh headed to Athens and made quick work of the field. They won all 14 sets en route to the gold medal, holding opponents to an average of 14.7 points in each frame. It was pure dominance.
Building Toward Beijing
No one could touch May-Treanor and Walsh over the next three years, as they won 36 events on the AVP tour and notched back-to-back-to-back world titles on the FIVB—the first time that had ever been done.
They headed into 2008 amidst a record 112-match winning streak, and the volleyball world knew that it didn’t look good for the field heading into the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Perfect Yet Again
It was another gold-medal run without losing a single set in China, this time holding opponents to an average of 15.1 points per frame. The Americans beat the Chinese tandem of Jia Tan and Jie Wang in a rain-soaked championship match, 21-18, 21-18. The match took a measly 42 minutes, but it was still the longest of the tournament for the champions.
Like she did in Athens, Misty sprinkled some of her late mother Barbara's ashes on the sand of the Olympic courts in homage, filled with emotion.
Dancing Disaster and Split-up
The goofy and exuberant May-Treanor decided to compete on Dancing With the Stars in 2009, as by this point, she and Walsh were well-known figures outside of just volleyball circles. Things took a disastrous turn during practice in the middle of the show’s season, however, when she tore her Achilles' tendon, requiring surgery and a lengthy recovery.
Walsh, meanwhile, had started a family with her husband, fellow AVP star Casey Jennings.
Combined with May-Treanor’s injury, a hiatus became necessary. They paired up for a second-place finish in one tournament at the end of '09, but Walsh once again became pregnant, leading May-Treanor to look elsewhere for a playing partner.
The new partner was compatriot Nicole Branagh, who had played in Beijing with Elaine Youngs. Branagh and May-Treanor won their first AVP event together and went on to share moderate success on both tours, trailing off with four straight finishes at ninth or lower to end the international season.
Misty needed Kerri, and Kerri was ready to come back.
With the AVP bankrupt and out of business, it was all about the FIVB in 2011. Reunited, the team was good, but not as great as they had been, winning three of 11 events with four second-place finishes to boot. (That would be an excellent season by any others’ standards, as it earned them $144,650 in winnings.)
The 2012 campaign saw a slow start, with a fifth-place finish followed by two ninth-place showings this spring. They picked up their first win just before London, getting a lucky break by avoiding the top teams en route to a win in Gstaad, Switzerland.
The defending champions headed to England as the third-seeded team, and people were doubting they could do it again. The Olympics count as an event on the FIVB schedule, and they had only medaled in two of six tournaments leading up to the Games.
Australians Tamsin Hinchley and Natalie Cook provided a respectable challenge in their first match, making the Americans work for it in a 21-18, 21-19 final. Young Czechs Kristyna Kolocova and Marketa Slukova were slightly easier opponents, losing 21-14, 21-19.
Then came a few fleeting moments of panic, as the Austrian Schwaiger sisters handed the Americans their first ever Olympic set loss in the final round of pool play. The sisters picked up the first set 21-17 over May-Treanor and Walsh, who had already clinched a spot in the elimination bracket.
With experience, however, comes poise. The Americans responded by demolishing the Austrians in the second set, 21-8, before sealing the match 15-10 in the third.
Wins against Austria and Italy in the elimination bracket came easily, each taking less than 33 minutes. That led to Tuesday’s semifinal matchup against the tournament’s No. 2 seed, Chen Xue and Xi Zhang of China.
The Chinese looked like the better team in the early stages of the match. They dug 20 balls in the first set and were physically superior. They had May-Treanor and Walsh on the ropes up 13-8 in the first, but the ever-confident Americans stormed back to win 22-20. The second set was also close, and a late rally by the Chinese forced more extra points. Walsh picked up one of her five blocks to end it, however, 22-20.
Ross and Kessy upset top-seeded Brazil a couple of hours later, and Wednesday’s all-American final was set.
The championship match was never in much doubt. The powerful Ross and Kessy, who led the tournament in attacking percentage, hit for a lower clip than the champs and lost steam down the stretch of both sets. Ross missed two key serves late in the match, and May-Treanor and Walsh cruised home to the three-peat.
“I’m a little speechless right now because I can’t believe this is my last match,” said May-Treanor after the win (via nbcolympics.com).
She plans on having children of her own with her husband, Dodgers catcher Matt Treanor. Walsh, meanwhile, has two incredibly cute little boys to raise with her husband.
There have been hints of a comeback to Dancing With the Stars for the extroverted May-Treanor, and no one will be surprised if she wins. That’s what she does. Either way, her personality should keep her in the public eye, perhaps as a broadcaster in years to come.
It’s been quite a run for the sport’s greatest tandem. The high school sophomore who got an autograph from her favorite player ended up joining forces with that player to win millions in prize money and become an Olympic hero.
It’s just a shame we can’t see them play for another decade.