Olympic spot no beach trip for Brazil's Ana Paula

Aug. 08, 2008, 8:05 a.m. (ET)

BEIJING (AP) Two-time Olympian Ana Paula devoted the last two years to qualifying for the Beijing Games. When she failed, she planned a weeklong vacation in Los Angeles with her boyfriend, turned off her phone, and tried to get some rest.

But as she slept in Rio de Janeiro, almost 11,000 miles away one of Brazil's top beach volleyball players was practicing at the Chaoyang Park venue and realizing she could not play through an injured anterior cruciate ligament. Juliana withdrew from the games on Wednesday so partner Larissa would be able to compete with a different partner, and Ana Paula was the designated substitute.

But their first match was in three days.

She was a 24-hour flight away.

And no one could get in touch with her.

"As everybody knows, Brazil is located on the other side of the world," Ana Paula said Friday, just hours after landing in Beijing and hours before the opening ceremony. "Sometimes life can be really tricky. You don't know what the future holds. But like any army, a good soldier must be ready."

Juliana and Larissa are the top-ranked team in talent-rich Brazil, and the No. 3 team in the world. Ana Paula, who won a bronze medal indoors in 1996, finished eighth in international qualifying with her teammate Shelda Bede and missed the cut because of a quota that limits each country to no more than two entries in the 24-team beach volleyball field.

But Ana Paula's chances were revived when Juliana damaged her ACL in a grand slam event in Paris in June. Doctors recommended immediate surgery but she held off, hoping she could make it through to the Olympics.

"We were all crying in France," said American Kerri Walsh, the defending champion with partner Misty May-Treanor and the favorites to win another gold medal. "You go through so much to get here, it's a little heartbreaking."

Juliana, 25, took a month off and returned late last month for the final grand slam of the season. She said she was pain-free and able to move without impairment.

To Ana Paula, that was the signal to make other plans.

"The last word from my federation, about two weeks ago, was that she was OK," she said. "And I was really happy because I know that she has been working so hard for four years. I was really happy for her, because I have been to two Olympics."

Even as Juliana pronounced herself ready, though, she knew she wasn't. She felt pain in her knee twice during last month's grand slam event in Austria, but any time she talked about withdrawing Larissa pressed her to keep trying.

When the pain returned in practice this week, Juliana knew that the Brazilians had a better chance at a medal without her.

"It's not honest" to take up the spot on the team when she was unable to play a full strength, she said Thursday night. "I am 50 percent sad, 50 percent happy. Happy because my country, my partner, my coach and everybody believed in me and they waited for my last decision.

"I tried every day, and the last moment ...," she said, turning away and unable to finish the thought. "Sorry."

She told Larissa, and then the federation.

"She is a warrior something unbelievable," Brazilian delegate Marco Teixeira said. "She said, 'I can play in the Olympics, but we're going to go nowhere with me. I think it's better for Brazil, if you want to get a gold medal, if you substitute (for) me.'"

The federation filed paperwork for the substitution late Wednesday and booked Ana Paula on a flight to Beijing - business class, so she could rest - with an 11-hour layover in Paris and a room at hotel with a workout facility.

But there was still the matter of getting in touch with her. Unable to reach her by phone, Teixeira sent someone to knock on her door at about 6 a.m. Wednesday, passing the message along to her sister.

"She said, 'Get up, get up! You've got to go to Beijing!' I told her, 'No, I'm not going,'" Ana Paula said, thinking that she had been offered a TV commentary job. "She said, 'No, something happened to Juliana.'"

Ana Paula arrived in Beijing at about 10:30 a.m. Friday and went straight to the Chaoyang Park beach volleyball venue.

"The trip was easy," she said. "I was completely focused on getting here rested and ready."

She arrived just in time for an all-athletes meeting with Olympic officials, but wouldn't get a chance to practice with Larissa for the first time - ever - until the morning of their first match, at 8 p.m. Saturday against Cristine Santanna and Andrezza Martins das Chagas of Georgia.

"This has been the big emotion in my life," Larissa said. "Juliana is my partner. I think 50 percent (for) Juliana and 50 percent (for) me. But now Ana Paula is another 50 percent."

A star for the Brazilian indoor team in the 1990s, Ana Paula, 36, has been playing beach volleyball professionally since 1999. The No. 10 all-time money-winner on the international pro tour, she finished fifth in the Athens Games and has been the top server on the world circuit the past three seasons.

"She has been to so many Olympics," Walsh said. "She knows how to play the game."

As Ana Paula's trip was ending, Juliana was departing for Brazil. She spent her last night in China watching her teammate practice with a fill-in from Brazil's indoor team.

She smiled as she talked, her right leg elevated on a chair but without any other sign of pain.

"Maybe it is not my time," she said. "There is more power in the sky. It is bigger than me."

Still, she vowed to immediately begin working toward the London Games.

"I start preparing on Thursday, after my surgery," Juliana said. "Maybe I will be the first one to start."