LONDON — The champs were staggering in the sand. China's Xue Chen and Zhang Xi had them reeling in the first set, down 13-7 in the Olympic women's volleyball semifinal. Kerri Walsh Jennings and Misty May-Treanor looked as disjointed as China looked adept.
"Now, now, now!" Walsh Jennings called out repeatedly, trying to shake their funk.
[Photos: U.S. Women's Beach Volleyball]
Their defense tightened. The points started piling up: The six-point deficit became a 13-all tie. Walsh Jennings was blocking and spiking everything in sight. May-Treanor was digging balls next to the net and well out of bounds. A late China rally prolonged the inevitable, but the Americans took the set 22-20.
They claimed the next set by the same score. For the third straight Olympics, and the last time as teammates, Walsh Jennings and May-Treanor will play for gold.
"We never panicked. That's what champions do. To [come back] against that team, is insane. It doesn't happen. They're too good," said Walsh.
"We played far from perfect, but our hearts were perfect."
The gold-medal match is Wednesday night at Horse Guards Parade in London against either the American team of Jen Kressy and April Ross or Brazil. It will be May-Treanor's farewell for Team USA and competitive volleyball, as she and Walsh Jennings attempt to win their third consecutive gold in Olympic beach volleyball.
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"We have one more match together. We're not thinking about that yet. But it heightens everything," said Walsh Jennings.
Walsh shifted to another gear in the semifinal, carrying play at times and dominating the net.
"You can see the blocking gives us pressure," said Xue after the match. "I think that we played good. They played better, though."
The second set found the Americans coming out fast and maintaining a lead until China rallied for its first lead at 19-18.
Then Walsh Jennings scored what might be the most spectacular point of the tournament. May-Treanor went far out of bounds to keep a rally alive, sending a dig back toward the net. Walsh Jennings wasn't able to spike the descending pass, so she slid under the net and dug the ball up and over — her 6-foot-2 frame avoiding contact with the net.
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The U.S. would win the point, and eventually the match in the 22-20 set.
"Usually, I try not to overshoot it that much. But with Kerri as tall as she is, I want to get her as close to the net as possible. Obviously, I overshot it a little bit. My mistake, but she capitalized," said May-Treanor.
"I've been inspired by U.S. gymnastics," Walsh Jennings quipped.
Now comes to the moment the duo has been anticipating, dreading, avoiding yet embracing:
"I think if I wasn't ready, I'd be emotional, but I'm ready [to retire]," said Treanor.
"Kerri and I worked so hard to get here. This year wasn't one of our better years, but we stuck in there. We're out here for a reason: To be together, and to stand at the top of the podium."
Update: And it will be an all-American gold medal match, as April Ross and Jennifer Kessy upset the number-one seeded Brazilians in the second semifinal. The two U.S. squads will face off Wednesday at 4 p.m.ET.
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