BEIJING (AP) Elaine Youngs is back for her third Olympics, a volleyball career that takes her from the U.S. indoor team in Atlanta to the sands of the beach volleyball venue in Beijing.
And she can hardly believe what she's seeing.
"I've been through the bankruptcy of the '90s, and all that. To come from where we were to now, it's amazing," she said Thursday. "The NBC television package, the great sponsors, the prize money. The sport has grown hugely. We're the hottest ticket in the Olympics."
Beach volleyball is having its day in the sun, and athletes like Youngs who were part of the sport before its heyday are reveling in its growth. Tickets for the competition at the Chaoyang Park venue were snapped up in just a day and a half, and the sport will be featured on the prime-time TV broadcast on four of the first six nights of the games.
"It seems like the buzz around here is beach volleyball," Youngs' partner, Nicole Branagh, said after one of the last practices before competition starts on Saturday morning.
That buzz will be boosted by an American announcer who helps bring a spring break atmosphere to the venue. He'll have some help from a DJ blaring rock music and dancing girls in bikinis spicing up the gaps between sets and games.
But the first thing many think of when they mention beach volleyball are the skimpy bikinis worn by the actual athletes when they play - a uniform that might have a little bit to do with the abundant TV coverage.
"It's a great office environment, with half-naked women running around," said Jake Gibb, one of the American men in the field of 24, two-man teams.
Youngs played indoor volleyball in Atlanta in 1996, when the beach branch of the sport made its Olympic debut. A few years later, she was playing on the beach professionally when the U.S. tour went bankrupt. She won the beach volleyball bronze medal in Athens.
Now, she said, beach volleyball is one of the top five Olympic sports in the United States, with gymnastics, swimming, track and field and boxing. "For beach volleyball to be in that class is amazing," she said.
Karch Kiraly, who won the inaugural gold medal in Atlanta and will provide TV commentary from Beijing, said the big crowds and the excitement were there from Day 1. What's different this time around is the way beach volleyball will be a centerpiece of the TV coverage.
But Kiraly thinks it's the athleticism on display and the ability for the fans to enjoy themselves - more than the sex - that makes the sport so telegenic.
"I don't think it has anything to do with bikinis or not bikinis," he said. "The sport has a sex appeal that track and field and some others don't. But this is not tennis and it's not golf. You can make noise any time you want.
Misty May-Treanor, who is teamed up with Kerri Walsh for an attempt to repeat as Olympic gold medalists, acknowledges that sex appeal is part of the draw. But she also knows that the fans learn soon enough that they aren't attending a beauty pageant.
"People used to think, 'You guys are just a bunch of girls in bathing suits running around,'" May-Treanor said. "But when people come to an event, they see the athleticism. Then they get caught up in everything. The venue will be hopping."
The victory by May-Treanor and Walsh in Athens helped keep alive a streak of American gold medals in the event; they've won one at every Olympics since beach volleyball was added to the games in '96. Only Brazil, which has won seven of a possible 18 men's and women's medals - the U.S. has won five - has been able to keep up.
Todd Rogers and Phil Dalhausser are the favorites on the men's side, with Gibb and Sean Rosenthal giving the United States another solid contender. But this year China is expected to mount an especially strong challenge on its home sand, with teams from the Netherlands, Greece and Germany also likely to reach the medal round.
"Before, when you said, 'beach volleyball,' people said, 'Oh, the United States and Brazil,'" May-Treanor said. "The fire has caught in different places."
And that's fine with Walsh.
"That's one of the best things. We need that to sustain the growth of the sport," she said. "I am a big fan of the sport and I want it to grow. Personally, it's good for me, and professionally, I want the sport to last a million years."