By Phil Taylor
August 08, 2012

LONDON -- When it was over and the gold was theirs again, Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh, so good together all these years, went their separate ways. After they hugged to celebrate their third straight Olympic gold medal in women's beach volleyball, they each went to find their people. May-Treanor ran to one end of the sand court at Horse Guards Parade to grab hold of her loved ones. Walsh raced to the other end, where her brother reached down from the first row of the bleachers and pulled her up into the stands for a group hug.

You might not think that would be their first instinct, to move away from each other so quickly, given that this would be their last time together as a team. Walsh held her two sons, three-year-old Joseph and two-year-old Sundance, in her arms, while someone draped a flag around her. May-Treanor, whose retirement had just begun, was elsewhere, taking a lap, high-fiving the crowd. They were so close, and yet so far apart. "I wondered for a second, should I be doing this?" Walsh said. "This should be the time for Misty and me." The time to hold on a little longer to her friend and teammate, she meant. "But then I thought," Walsh said, "this has been a family journey."

So true. Walsh's sons call May-Treanor "Auntie Turtle." May-Treanor is retiring in part because she has seen how much being a mother has changed Walsh's life for the better, and she wants the same for herself. They have become as close as sisters, closer in this last, most difficult journey toward the gold than ever before. This family journey.

They have been so good to each other, so good for each other, so good for the sport. They have been just so good, period, that it was impossible to root against them even though some part of us usually wants to see dynasties crumble. Even Jenn Kessy and April Ross, the duo they beat rather handily, 21-16, 21-16, in the all-American final, couldn't feel too disappointed in losing to champions so admirable in every way. "We wanted the gold medal so badly," Kessy said, "but if we're going to lose, I would want it to be to a team like that. They are just ... they're just champions."

It was harder to earn that title the third time around. Walsh and May-Treanor, who began playing together in 2001, often talk about "the journey," and this trip was a tough slog. "It was sweeter because the road was full of challenges," Walsh said. "Life challenges, just adult challenges."

May-Treanor tore her Achilles shortly after their second gold medal, Beijing Olympics in 2008, while rehearsing for Dancing with the Stars. Walsh gave birth twice. This is the way champions often dissolve, little by little, as outside issues, whether positive or negative, upset the equilibrium. They spent the better part of two years apart before they reunited last year. "We had this painting we envisioned," May-Treanor said. "We were painting and painting but we hadn't finished it. Tonight we finished it."

In style. The final strokes, in a way, were the easiest. Kessy and Ross, who upset top seed Brazil in the semifinals, had played their American counterparts three times this year and won one, but they were still clearly underdogs. May-Treanor and Walsh made sure they never let the less experienced pair, playing in their first Olympics, have any reason to believe that an upset was possible.

From 10-10 in the first set, the champions took control, with Walsh blocking most everything at the net and May-Treanor winning several points with well-placed shots. They didn't think their performance was one of their best -- "I'd give us a B+," May-Treanor said -- but their opponents were plenty impressed. "They didn't let us win a point with a good shot," Ross said. "They made us hit a great one, and we didn't hit nearly enough."

In the mixed zone after the game, the floor boards gave way underneath Walsh and May-Treanor as they were talking to reporters, which startled even a couple of native Californians like them who are used to the ground moving beneath their feet. The end of their pairing represents a tectonic shift for women's volleyball as well. With Prince Harry in attendance, not far from Buckingham Palace, it was hard not to think about how the volleyball monarchy will change, whether someone will help Walsh retain the throne or whether there will be completely new successors.

Walsh, 33, plans to continue to play, her sights set on the Games in Rio in 2016. She's not quite ready to start interviewing applicants for the position yet, however. "Goodness, let's talk about that later," she said. Then she motioned toward Kessy and Ross, who were sitting next to her on the podium and the post-match press conference. "There are a couple of players to my left that I'd be honored to play with."

If it is to be one of them, it would almost certainly be Ross, 30, since Kessy is 35, the same age as May-Treanor. But there will be time for that discussion later. If May-Treanor and Walsh were going to consider the future, they wanted it to be the future of their relationship. Ironically, it was Kerri who was misty, while Misty seemed at peace. "My mind says it's time, my body says it's time," May-Treanor said. Walsh struggled more with the ending, perfect as it was. "The past two years have changed my life," Walsh said. "It sounds cheesy but it's true. Our competitive journey is over that that crushes me a little. It makes it really hard, really bittersweet. But we get to be girlfriends now."

May-Treanor has been agonizing over what to get for her ex-teammate-turned-girlfriend, who turns 34 on Wednesday. Helping Walsh win another piece of gold jewelry would seem to have taken care of that problem. "I hope it's enough," she said. Yes, it will probably do the trick, but they both know that presents aren't necessary. They have given each other the best that they have, and that has made them the best in the world, and that is a gift that will last a lifetime.

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