It’s not often that Olympic competition boils down to a race for the silver medal, but when you dominate a sport like Kerri Walsh and Misty-May Treanor did in 2008 then second place is pretty much all you can hope for. The two Americans were so dominant in women’s beach volleyball that they entered the cauldron of competition at the Olympic Games in Beijing on the back of an unbeaten run stretching back to August 2007 and amounting to over 100 matches.
It was a third Olympic Games for both of the players from sunny California; Walsh was a member of the U.S. indoor volleyball team which finished fourth in Sydney while May and then partner Holly McPeake failed to make it past the quarter finals of the beach volleyball.
The team paired up on the sand in 2001, and won their first title in the backyard of the game in Rio de Janeiro two years later. Walsh and May won all seven matches they contested at the Olympic Games in Athens to win their first gold medal, and in doing so managed not to lose a set throughout. By the time Beijing came around, they had the aura of invincibility.
They won their three group games without ever looking in danger but were given probably their toughest test of the competition when Belgium’s Liesbeth Mouha and Liesbet van Breedem pushed them to 24-22 in their opening set before folding to a 21-10 loss in the second.
The Americans singlehandedly ended the Brazilian challenge with wins over pairs in the quarters and semis before they faced the Chinese pair of Tian Jia and Wang Jie in the gold medal match.
The final could not have looked further from the idyllic notion of beach volleyball played in baking heat and glorious sunshine.
The rain poured down at Chaoyang Park, but it failed to dampen the spirits of a vocal home crowd eager to see if their team could end the Americans’ awe-inspiring run of success. Wang and Tian, the last pairing to beat the Americans at the top level, held their nerve and focus until 17-17 in the first set when May-Treanor executed four exquisite kills to help seal the first set 21-18.
With wet sand and poor visibility making it a doubly tough encounter, the Americans won a key point to edge 18-17 clear and it was Walsh who closed the game out by a superbly placed shot on the swivel.
Both players sunk to their knees and embraced as their perfect winning run in the Olympics won them their second straight gold, the first players ever to defend a beach volleyball title on the biggest stage of all.