For two Olympics, Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh were inseparable from their sport, even to the casual, once-every-four-years viewer. They became synonymous to the point of word association.
They won 112 straight matches and two Olympic titles and brought the sand and bikinis to prime-time TV, joining Games fixtures gymnastics, track and field and Michael Phelps on the national stage.
But after a repeat gold at the 2008 Olympics, they both wanted sabbaticals to start families. Make beach volleyball players of the future, as May-Treanor put it. At that point the greatest partnership in the sport's young history split into individual stories.
"I didn't think I'd be going for another Olympics," said May-Treanor, 34.
Walsh, 33, felt differently.
"Not for one second" did she think the Beijing Games would be her last.
That's the way it looked 18 months ago. May-Treanor had decided to sit out 2011, while Walsh returned to the sand with a new partner after having her second child. But now they're back together, back at (nearly) the top of their sport, almost like nothing has changed, although plenty did.
Shortly after the 2008 Olympics, May-Treanor's plans were pre-empted when she tore her left Achilles while rehearsing for
Walsh was out about as long. She had two baby boys -- Joey (May 22, 2009) and Sundance (May 19, 2010, named after the Kid) -- and gained 36 pounds each time, along with a new outlook.
"I used to sleep, eat, breathe volleyball," said Walsh, who
The pair still competed when possible, just with a different partner. Nicole Branagh, a 2008 Olympian, took turns filling in while one or the other was sidelined. May-Treanor published an autobiography and paired with Branagh in 2010, went winless in nine international tournaments and decided not to play the next year as she pondered the future.
So Branagh became a free agent just as Walsh came back from her second pregnancy, perfect timing for them to team up for the 2011 season. Before the spring schedule began, Walsh received an e-mail from May-Treanor.
"I want to go back and play, and if it's with you or not, I just want you to know this is how I'm feeling," said May-Treanor, whose epiphany came after a conversation with her husband, major league catcher Matt Treanor.
"I didn't want to stop before my time was up," May-Treanor said. "I want to go out on my terms."
Walsh was shocked to receive the e-mail. They met for lunch at La Sirena Grill in El Segundo, Calif., where Walsh had questions that needed to be answered before reuniting.
"She wanted to know if I was all-in," May-Treanor said.
They called it a heart-to-heart talk between two friends to get back on the same page.
"I had to look in her face and trust her," Walsh said. "Best conversation I ever had with her."
Walsh made a friendly split with Branagh and this year re-ascended with May-Treanor to the world No. 2 ranking. They entered 11 tournaments and finished with three wins and four runners-up, not bad with May-Treanor still working her way back into shape.
"I was very happy with how the season went, having two years off not playing together and finishing No. 2 in the world," May-Treanor said. "I don't think anybody else could have done that."
They went 58-13 on the international tour, which was impressive, but also mortal compared to their year-long unbeaten run leading up to the Beijing Olympics.
"All their dominance in beating teams 21-10, 21-12, I think that era is done," said their Brazilian coach, Marcio Sicoli.
May-Treanor and Walsh are certainly not in the same position they were going into Athens and Beijing. They may be underdogs for the first time.
"Right now, they're not the favorites," said Holly McPeak, a three-time Olympian turned TV volleyball analyst. "Juliana and Larissa are."
Juliana Silva and Larissa França, Brazil's top team, beat May-Treanor and Walsh in three games in the gold-medal match at last summer's world championships. It marked May-Treanor's and Walsh's first defeat at a worlds or Olympics since 2001. May-Treanor actually served for the match in the third game before the Brazilians stormed back for the win.
"That loss is under my skin," Walsh said.
May-Treanor remembered the way the Brazilians celebrated, from
"It was almost like they didn't expect to do it [win]," May-Treanor said. "A team that beats you should expect to.
"I think, still, when they step on the court against us, there's a sense of fear."
Maybe there is.
"May and Walsh are the best team in the world," said Juliana, even though she and Larissa went 5-1 against May-Treanor and Walsh this year. "Misty and Kerri played two Olympic Games together. They have the history, more experience."
The experience remains a bit disconnected more than a year into the comeback. May-Treanor said she and Walsh spent all of 2011 trying to rediscover their rhythm, which they have yet to find. Communication and being in sync are crucial on the sand.
"We need to get our competitive mojo back," Walsh said.
Injuries didn't help. May-Treanor sprained her left knee in April and spent the rest of the season wearing a brace. Walsh underwent right-shoulder surgery in September to repair a torn labrum and was rehabbing into December. She expects to be fine for the start of the season next week.
They must play one more tournament together to meet Olympic qualification criteria. It's likely that May-Treanor and Walsh will be joined by Jennifer Kessy and April Ross (the 2009 world champions) as the two U.S. Olympic teams. The fight for medals in London should again come down to three countries -- the United States, Brazil and China -- the only nations to medal in either of the last two Games.
Whether or not May-Treanor and Walsh win a third gold -- no other pair has won two since the sport joined the Olympics in 1996 -- it won't change their post-London outlook.
May-Treanor said it'd be a long shot to go for a fifth Olympics in 2016. Walsh differed, saying she could repeat a child-birth break followed by a comeback for the Rio Games.
Of course, neither is looking that far ahead. For now, they're together again, inseparable from their sport.
"We were both following different dreams," Walsh said. "When we came back together, it felt right.
"In my heart, I'm so far from done. Misty, in her heart, she's not done. We love the challenge. We want to prove that we're the best."