McPeak and Youngs capture the bronze
ATHENS, Greece -- They raced to the stands and grabbed American flags as "Born in the USA" blared over the speakers at the Olympics' rowdiest venue.
"It kind of hit me when I went and saw my family and they had tears in their eyes," Walsh said. "They flew a million miles to see it and they hate flying. It's really special."
With the 6-foot-3 Walsh dominating at the net and the quick May scrambling and diving for every dig, they were favorites since last year, when they began an unprecedented 90-match, 15-tournament winning streak.
"We have so much confidence in each other, we never doubted ourselves," May said.
"We deserve it," Walsh added.
The Americans and Brazilians exchanged hugs on the medal stand before the national anthem played. Adriana and Shelda, the all-time winningest pair on the international FIVB tour, won their second straight silver medal.
On match point in a surprisingly lopsided final, Walsh hammered a spike just inside the line. Walsh fell to her knees as May ran to embrace her and both fell backward in the sand.
"I just tackled her," May said. "I didn't care if I broke her knees because she has a lot of time to rest."
Questions about the pair's Olympic chances arose in June, shortly after May pulled an abdominal muscle. She spent most of the summer rehabbing while Walsh kept homing her game with other partners.
If they had weaknesses, they certainly weren't apparent in Athens where they were untouchable, improving to 108-8 over two years.
"A lot of people had doubts," May said. "I tried to tell people I never had doubts."
But they never took the medal for granted.
"People said, 'You've got the gold medal in the bag," Walsh said. "However flattering that is, we know that's not true."
Now it's time to party.
May and Walsh are invited to a post-Olympics party at McPeak's home in California, where 10 bottles of Dom Perignon await.
The toasts will taste especially sweet to McPeak, who finished fifth at the Olympics in 1996 and 2000, both times because her partner was injured. Two weeks before Atlanta, Nancy Reno tore a rotator cuff and couldn't do much more than set in the tournament. Five weeks before Sydney, May -- then her teammate -- tore an abdominal muscle. She and McPeak hardly practiced together before the games began.
Youngs played on the U.S. indoor team that finished a disappointing seventh in Atlanta. She hit the beach the following year and paired with McPeak in 2002 with Athens on her mind.
The Americans' bronze victory kept Cook off the medal stand for the first time since beach volleyball became an Olympic sport in 1996. Cook won the bronze in Atlanta and the gold in Sydney, both times with Kerri Pottharst. She teamed with Sanderson last year after Pottharst retired.
The Americans controlled the first set, but trailed 16-13 in the second. On a dive for the ball, Cook aggravated her right shoulder, which she keeps heavily taped to protect a torn rotator cuff. She wasn't the same after hitting the sand, resorting to serving underhanded and grimacing after every fall.
"I thought, 'I only had 15 more minutes of volleyball to get through," Cook said. "I have to keep going."
McPeak and Youngs dominated the decisive set and when Youngs finished the match with a tap to open sand, she sprinted to the back of the court and leaped into the air. Youngs hugged her partner, then ran into the stands to hug family members. She grabbed an American flag and found a laurel wreath to put on her head.
The bronze medal completed a historic year for the 35-year-old McPeak, who became the sport's winningest female player with a victory at Manhattan Beach, Calif., in June. She lives within walking distance of that beach and had a bottle of champagne waiting after that victory, too.
Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press
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