Mauritius beach volleyball pair make Olympic debut
LONDON -- Americans Kerri Walsh Jennings and Misty May-Treanor are unlikely to face a first-time pair from Mauritius in their quest for a third straight beach volleyball gold medal.
After all, Elodie Li Yuk Lo and partner Natacha Rigobert might not even get out of pool play.
Talk about a contrast in an Olympic beach volleyball tournament that now features a handful of new faces alongside the world's biggest stars.
By the time the reigning Olympic champs hit the sand to face the Czech team of Kristyna Kolocova and Marketa Slukova on Monday night at picturesque Horse Guards Parade, the team from Mauritius could be in bed.
The Olympic newcomers play the opening match Monday morning; the star U.S. tandem play the last one at night -- their second consecutive 11 p.m. (local time) court date.
"I was worried," Walsh Jennings said after winning her opener against Australia. "At home, it hits 11 and I'm a zombie. But we could play at 4 in the morning, we don't care."
Li Yuk Lo and Rigobert get their next chance in pool play against Lenka Hajeckova and Hana Klapalova of the Czech Republic after losing their Olympic opener Saturday to the Brazilian team of Juliana Silva and Larissa Franca, 21-5, 21-10.
Two years ago, Li Yuk Lo quit her job teaching high school biology and physical education, left her family in Toronto and moved to France to train for the Olympics. In February, Rigobert also walked away from teaching and began the countdown to London.
These two are making history for Mauritius -- as the first Olympic beach volleyball players from the tiny East African island nation.
They are enjoying the moment, high-fiving at every opportunity during practice and between points.
Word from supporters back home is that they're gaining popularity in the media and in ads now that the Olympics have begun. Rigobert's husband, professor of sports psychology Thierry Long, is coaching them during this special run.
Mariusz Prudel and Grzegorz Fijalek of Poland also are making their country's debut in a sport long dominated by just a few countries, like Australia, Brazil and the United States. The Polish team also will play for the second time during Monday's schedule.
While beach volleyball is a huge hit and one of the most popular and sexy Olympic competitions, it is still relatively new on the program since becoming a medal sport at the 1996 Atlanta Games. Still, the Olympic rookies realize they play a part in educating those back home and elsewhere.
"It's amazing. We're just so happy to be here as the first team ever in our history from Mauritius," Rigobert said. "It's even more fantastic that it's beach volleyball because our island is surrounded by beautiful beaches. We hope this will bring the sport up in our country and in Africa."
On the men's side, Prudel and his partner dropped their first match to Latvia 12-21, 21-15, 15-12, and will play again Monday night against the No. 2 U.S. pair of Jake Gibb and Sean Rosenthal.
During the final practice day, Prudel -- with a goatee, long sideburns and his sandy blond hair pulled into in a ponytail -- patiently waited to receive his name-brand shades -- with choice of color and lenses.
He is soaking up everything about the Olympics, and what a treat to be playing in a venue smack in the middle of London's most majestic landmarks.
"It's the first time for Poland in the Olympics, so it's a very big experience for everyone," Prudel said. "We will see how we play. I hope there will be a good celebration afterward. I think we can do something special. To be where we are and playing good, it's a celebration already."
It's unusual for a new country to break through at the Olympic level, but now qualifying isn't based only on rankings from major events. International Volleyball Federation director Angelo Squeo, for one, finds it refreshing to see new faces.
"It's a long journey to come to the Olympics," said Mauritius coach Long, who teaches at the University of Nice. "From a sport point of view, it's a dream. From a more private point of view, it's more difficult. They give a lot to their country. I think it's unbalanced compared to what it gives to them. This was their dream. They realized it, and they did what they needed to do to realize it."
Financial support is tough to come by, so Li Yuk Lo and Rigobert are limited to five top-tier international tournaments a year because they don't have sponsors or the means to regularly fly across the world. They're appreciative they received new uniforms from Nike, then were gifted even more gear -- backpacks, hats, shirts, a pair of shoes and sandals -- from the sportswear giant.
They will make a point of traveling home to Mauritius after the Olympics for what should be quite the welcoming reception no matter their results.
Both women were born in Mauritius, in the Indian Ocean east of Madagascar and southeast of the Seychelles, but grew up elsewhere. Still, from their rare visits home, they realize how much it means to the country to watch them on the world stage.
"We feel honored to be able to represent Mauritius in a sport that's relatively new," Li Yuk Lo said. "There weren't any other beach volleyball teams on the international tour before, so we were happy to represent the country."
Neither can commit to making a run at Rio de Janeiro in 2016. The lead up to London has been quite a grind, and both are looking forward to some much-needed down time once they're done.
They haven't been back to Mauritius since winning the Continental Cup in late May to earn their London berth, but are looking forward to their return trip.
"That was part of the decision. You either practice full time, going full-speed ahead, or kind of do both, but you won't be as successful if you do things half way," Li Yuk Lo said. "It's hard because we're actually not on the island often, but we have a lot of family and friends there."
This little-known tandem, with all its challenges, is thrilled to represent a fresh approach in the Olympic tournament.
"Hopefully with this it encourages more people to play, especially youngsters on the island," Li Yuk Lo said. "We have so many nice beaches, why not promote beach volleyball and have that as the sport of the country?"
NBC Monday Olympic Prime Time Schedule:
8 p.m.-midnight (EDT/PDT)
Swimming: gold medal finals in men's 200m freestyle, men's and women's 100m backstroke, women's 100m breaststroke; Men's gymnastics: team gold medal final; Men's diving: synchronized platform gold medal final; Women's beach volleyball: May-Treanor/Walsh (U.S.) vs. Slukova/Kolocova (Czech Republic).
Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press
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