Misty May-Treanor attempts a dig at the Summer Olympic Games Beijing 2008 on Aug. 12, 2008 in Beijing, China.
Generally speaking, pouring rain is not the weather one hopes to wake up to on the morning of an Olympic beach volleyball gold-medal match.
Yet Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings weren’t bothered when greeted by that sight at the Olympic Games Beijing 2008 on the day they hoped to make history by becoming the first back-to-back Olympic champions.
“We were like, ‘It’s a good day to win. It’s a good day to be out there,’” May-Treanor remembered. “We always stayed pretty positive and whatever was brought to us we found a way to deal with. We didn’t look too far ahead.”
May-Treanor and Walsh Jennings, who was just Kerri Walsh back then, comprised the most formidable duo in the history of their sport, winning three consecutive Olympic gold medals between 2004 and 2012. They entered Beijing with all the attention and pressure but also the experience that comes with being a defending champion, and executed their goal in stellar fashion. That gold-medal match against China will be the subject of Monday night’s “Return to Beijing” broadcast at 10 p.m. ET on NBCSN as the network enters it second week of Olympic Games Week programming.
“The Olympics are always a special time, but Kerri and I understood we had a chance to do something great, not only for our sport and women’s sports but also our history, and that was to repeat as Olympic champions,” May-Treanor said. “I think we understood going into 2008 a little better as far as our journey and what we were doing and what we had the ability to do. In Athens (in 2004) we were so young I don’t think we let it sink in as much as heading into Beijing with the chance to do what no one else had done before in our sport.”
The details of specific matches are a blur, not only because of the passage of time but also because part of team’s approach was to stay in the moment. Even back then, May-Treanor said, if someone mentioned how many matches they’d won in a row they’d often just look at each other and say that if that’s the number then that’s the number, but they didn’t keep track.
Starting out in Pool B, the U.S. duo breezed through the first three games, beating Japan, Cuba and Norway without losing a set. They faced a team from Belgium in the round of 16 to set up a quarterfinal match against Brazil.
That team consisted of Larissa Franca and Ana Paula Connelly, and while Larissa was a familiar opponent, Ana Paula was not, May-Treanor said. Larissa usually partnered with Juliana Felisberta, but an injury to the latter meant the new pairing.
“We were a little concerned with Larissa and Ana Paula because we didn’t know how they’d play together; we didn’t have film on them or any scouting reports,” May-Treanor said. “All you can do is go off how they were with their previous partners. When you get to a certain level and you train well enough you should be able to adjust to any situation, and that’s what Kerri and I were really good at was adjusting.”
They won that match 21-18, 21-15 and faced another team from Brazil in the semifinals. After beating Talita Antunes and Renata Ribeiro 21-12, 21-14, they were ready for the final test against China’s Tian Jia and Wang Jie. A crowd of 12,000 showed up to cheer on the home team in a rematch of the 2007 FIVB world championship final in which the U.S. won gold.
The final was close. The first set saw the score tied 12 times, and May-Treanor and Walsh Jennings trailed 18-17 before winning the next four points to close it out. China led 9-8 in the second set then again 14-13. The score was again tied 18-18 before May-Treanor and Walsh Jennings once again surged and delivered on what they went there to do.
“The Chinese athletes moved well, had quick wrists, moved the ball around, their blocker was tall at the net; it was raining and it was in their home country so you knew they were going to be amped up,” May-Treanor said of how close the matches were. “It doesn’t surprise me that it was tied because it’s always a battle with them.”
May-Treanor, then 31, truly believed 2008 was going to be her last Olympics, she said, and she had a lot of family in Beijing. She did a better job of making time to visit, which was easier because their matches were mostly in the morning, as well as taking time for some sightseeing and checking out the action elsewhere around Beijing than she did in previous years (she also competed in 2000 in Sydney with partner Holly McPeak). She and her family went to see the Great Wall, she said, and she took them on a tour of the Olympic Village. Other memories include the Opening Ceremony, trading pins and seeing athletes including Yao Ming and Kobe Bryant eating in the dining hall along with all the other athletes.
May-Treanor would have one more trip to the Olympics and win one more gold medal in London before calling it a career, but she’ll always remember the feeling cementing her place in history with her second consecutive gold medal.
“I remember the crowd cheering, finding our families, running around; it was fun,” she said. “There’s nothing better. I posted something recently (on social media) and said it seems like yesterday. I feel like it just happened, but I know there’s been a 12-year gap. Life says so and my body says so. But it plays in slow motion, the water droplets coming down and how much work you put in, you can’t help but shed tears and have the biggest smile on your face.”