BEIJING (AP) Celebrating her 30th birthday with a victory in the Sweet 16 on Friday, Kerri Walsh and partner Misty May-Treanor continued their romp through the Beijing Games, overcoming a first-set stumble to beat Belgium and advance to the quarterfinals of the Olympic beach volleyball medal round.
Despite facing five set points in the first, the Americans still needed just 38 minutes on Friday to dispatch Liesbeth Mouha and Liesbet van Breedam 24-22, 21-10. It was the 105th consecutive victory for the Americans, who won the gold medal in Athens and have been partners since 2001.
"We were like girls when we joined, and now we're like women," Walsh said. "We've seen each other get married and now were going to start families."
The other American women's team, Nicole Branagh and Elaine Youngs, also advanced Friday morning, beating Cubans Dalixia Fernandez and Tamara Larrea 21-15, 21-13. The two U.S. teams would not meet until the gold medal game.
"We'll give (Walsh) a belated birthday present on the 21st," Youngs said with a smile. "Hopefully a silver medal."
In other matches Friday morning under the first blue skies of the tournament, China's Wang Jie and Tian Jia eliminated the Norwegian team of Nila Haakedal and Ingrid Toerlen 21-13, 21-15. Australia's Natalie Cook and Tasmin Barnett advanced with a 22-20, 19-21, 15-12 victory over the Greek team of Efthalia Koutroumanidou and Maria Tsiartsiani.
Walsh and May-Treanor trailed 18-12 and 20-17 in the first set of the best-of-three match. Beach volleyball matches are up to 21, but the team must win by two, so it wasn't until the Americans scored three straight points after trailing 22-21 that they secured the set.
Walsh and May-Treanor, who have not lost a set in Beijing, won the clinching set in a more characteristic 15 minutes.
"We were a little bit scared to win the set maybe because it's something unbelievable," said Mouha, whose pair only qualified for the medal round by winning a "lucky loser" consolation match late Thursday night.
Walsh and May-Treanor had been playing every other day in the pool round at 9 a.m. - prime time TV back on the East Coast of the United States - never needing more than 37 minutes to win. They played Thursday morning and didn't find out until the 11 p.m draw that evening that they would be back the next morning.
"You're just kind of waiting, (saying) 'Should I go to bed or not," May-Treanor said with an exasperated sigh. "(But) we like playing at 9 o'clock. We want everybody to watch us."
Playing on consecutive days is standard on beach volleyball tours - sometimes they play three times a day - but Walsh and May-Treanor apparently needed took some time to get warmed up.
Besides, Mouha and van Breedam had it even worse: They finished their "lucky loser" match at 10 p.m. and had an even quicker turnaround. Youngs and Branagh went to bed not knowing what time they would play, then had to wake up at 6 a.m. to stretch and scout the Cubans.
"You can't assume anything. That's the lesson learned," Walsh said. "They came out really on fire and Misty and I didn't. Once we got our mojo going, we were really confident."
Walsh was planning to spend her birthday having Peking Duck with her family and watching the U.S. indoor women's volleyball team play China. A party is planned for Saturday night, but Walsh might have to leave early.
"The party will continue," her father, Tim Walsh said, "but she'll be gone."
Jake Gibb and Sean Rosenthal also faced their first challenge of the games before winning their round-robin finale on Thursday night over Japan. The Americans overcame two match points to beat Kentaro Asahi and Katsuhiro Shiratori 21-15, 19-21, 18-16 and reach the medal round with a perfect 3-0 record.
"Was it even close? It didn't feel close," Gibb said with a relieved smile. "That was what we needed (to get ready for the medal round). We needed to have a sideout for the match."