LONDON – The Olympics are harder now. This is what Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings have come to learn. Their longtime dominance has come at a price. Everyone has gotten better in an attempt to beat them. The simple power of their game isn't enough to get them through.
"We can't rely on our physicality now," May-Treanor said after they beat the Dutch team of Marleen van Iersel and Sanne Keizer 2-0 to reach the Olympic quarterfinals. "Maybe back in the day we could make a play and get by with that. Now there has to be a purpose."
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The other day they lost a set. It was the first time they had lost a set in three Olympic runs. The blemish angered them, not because their record would never be perfect but because it represented a frailty. Something had gone wrong. Nothing had ever gone wrong in their previous two Olympics.
They were so annoyed by their lost set they went to their next day's practice determined to find out what was missing. Their coach Marcio Sicoli made adjustments. He gave them new techniques to try. He pushed them to find new things.
Then on Saturday night they stormed out onto the sand pit at the Horse Guards Palace and tore apart van Iersel and Keizer. The match was over barely more than 30 minutes after it started.
It's strange that the greatest Olympic beach volleyball duo, with gold medals in Athens and Beijing, would seem vulnerable. But a lot has happened since they last stood on an Olympic podium. There were many months when it seemed they would not come here together. May-Treanor missed a year to recover from a torn Achilles and Walsh Jennings had picked a new partner in her absence. There didn't seem like much of a chance they would work together.
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But they have come back, carrying the emotional wounds of a team breakup, conceding they have used a sports psychologist to help find them new ground.
"The chemistry is there for sure," Walsh Jennings said. "I think the confidence is building and the comfort level playing in big matches is building."
Ask them and they say they are better than they have ever been. They know different ways to attack. They see things they never saw before. They understand each other's thoughts as much as any in the past. Yet the world around them is going faster. The 5-foot-9 May-Treanor looked around at the other teams and realized that almost all of them have players over 6-feet. The old ways of dominance don't work anymore. They've had to learn new tricks.
They say this is by far the most challenging Olympic path they've taken. Everyone else is so much stronger.
"If you look at the road, this is the most challenging road," Walsh Jennings said.
Watching them on Saturday it was hard to imagine any frailty. They roared through their Dutch opponents as if this was 2004 all over again. Everything they did was perfect. They said they planned to come out more aggressively then they have in the past. They said it wasn't because of the lost set last week. And yet it is impossible not to draw some kind of connection.
Someone asked them afterward if any of the teams they are playing now were around when they won Athens eight years ago. They thought, running names through their heads, but were unable to think of one.
What did they think that meant?
"It tells us we're awesome," Walsh Jennings said.
She was joking. But awesome isn't as easy anymore. They are old for their sport. May-Treanor tuned 35 the other day, her teammate will be 36 in a couple of weeks. May-Treanor has already said there won't be another Olympics. Walsh Jennings isn't so sure. She thinks she might want to be back in four years. Either way, they soon won't be what they were anymore. Life changes that way.
These Olympics are their last chance to do one more great thing. Getting better might not be enough. They are going to have to find new tricks, new ways to come out and surprise. Three more matches loom if they are going to win that last gold.
It's going to be the biggest fight of them all.
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