May pushes forward

Updated: August 15, 2004, 10:04 AM ET
By Seth Wickersham | ESPN The Magazine

ATHENS -- Misty May wanted her mother with her at the Games. She needed her.

A few years ago, after winning a volleyball match in Chicago, she mouthed "I love you" into the camera, just so her mom, Barbara, could see it back in Long Beach. Misty loves Barbara so much she has her initials tattooed to above her left shoulder with angel wings underneath.

So Misty wanted her mom near her, no matter how. So she asked her dad to bring her to Athens.

In her bid for gold, Misty May will have her mom's memory in her heart, and her mom's ashes at her side.

At first, transportation looked like a problem. But they found a way. "He's bringing her in a little bottle," Misty says.

Two years ago, Misty May's mother died of cancer.

She was at home when she got a call saying that Barbara wasn't doing well. She'd had cancer in her spine and lungs for two years. Things weren't looking good. Misty drove so fast to the Costa Mesa home Barbara was staying at that she was pulled over for speeding. It was the beginning of the worst day of her life.

So, as May prepares to compete for the gold in beach volleyball with partner Kerri Walsh (who Barbara helped her team up with), she does it with her mom's initials on her shoulder, her mom's memory in her heart, and her mom's ashes at her side. "I think about her every day," she says.

May and Walsh are the most dominant beach volleyball duo around, having won a record 15 straight titles and 90 straight matches. They start their official run for gold on Sunday, when they take on Japan's Chiaki Kusuhara and Ryo Tokuno. Both have been to the Olympics before, when Walsh was on America's indoor squad and May was coupled with current Olympian Holly McPeak on the beach. That's when Barbara, chatting with Walsh's parents, said that Kerri should "come outside."

It took a while, but finally she did. After a four-time All-America career at Stanford that saw her win two national titles, Walsh was bored with the outdoor game. May needed time off after her rookie season playing on the beach. In 2001, on Barbara's request, they scrimmaged, and as a duo they ranked fifth in the world in 2001 and first in 2002.

That was around the time things got bad. Both of Misty's grandparents had died of cancer. By May 2002, she had home nurses help care for her, but the cancer just got worse. Misty got the call at home, sped to Barbara's side, and was there just in time to say goodbye. The loss left a hole in Misty's life. She and her father, Butch, a star on the '68 men's indoor team, poured themselves into volleyball. Walsh and May became the hottest duo around, and have won more than $800,000, second on the women's all-time list. Still, May missed her mom. Then this January, life changed for her.

She met Matt Treanor, a catcher who played in the Florida Marlins organization, because they worked out in the same Southern Californian gym. They soon found they had more in common than cross trainers and sweat towels. Treanor was dealing with his brother's death. "We leaned on each other's shoulders," Misty says. "He's my rock."

On one March evening, after only a few months of dating, Treanor, in a nervous sweat, proposed. They're due to marry on Nov. 13.

So it's been a big year, which will only get bigger with a gold medal. May isn't 100 percent -- she suffered an abdominal injury that's kept her from practicing with Walsh until a week ago -- but she says she's ready. "There's never been any doubt that I'd compete in the games," she says. "I feel fine."

And now's her time.

Seth Wickersham

ESPN The Magazine senior writer
Seth Wickersham joined ESPN The Magazine after graduating from the University of Missouri. Although he primarily covers the NFL, his assignments also have taken him to the Athens Olympics, the World Series, the NCAA tournament and the NHL and NBA playoffs. Email him and follow him on Twitter at @sethwickersham.