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May's Heart Is on the Beach

DIANE PUCIN

October 13, 1999|DIANE PUCIN

For the last two years, as she established herself as the nation's top collegiate indoor volleyball player, as she caused eyes to widen and hearts to beat faster with her creativeness, with her setting skills and her smoothness on the court, with her pizazz and her ponytail, Costa Mesa's Misty May kept taking the right steps forward and telling her heart to shut up.

When May finished her Long Beach State eligibility, she did what was expected. This summer, May joined the U.S. national team, went to Colorado to train, played at the Pan American Games in Winnipeg, and toured with the U.S. team as it played a series of exhibition matches against Brazil.

For May, this was her destiny. She was being called the savior for a struggling team that might be lucky to qualify for the Olympics.

Her college coach, Brian Gimmillaro, has said May was going to do for women's volleyball what Mia Hamm had done for women's soccer last summer and Dot Richardson had done for women's softball at the 1996 Olympics. Gimmillaro also called May "the Wayne Gretzky" of women's volleyball.

So here it is, 11 months from the 2000 Olympics and May is sweating and grunting and covered with sand. She is playing beach volleyball on a court in Manhattan Beach with Holly McPeak. The national indoor team has been left behind. Duty was too difficult. Volleyball was not fun anymore. Was May to spend the next year doing what was expected or what she wanted?

"This little voice had been whispering to me for a while," May says. She is sitting on the first-level deck of a big, peach, three-story house just on the edge of the sand of the beach courts at 14th Street. It is the home that the 30-year-old McPeak, a 1996 Olympian, shares with her longtime boyfriend Leonard Armato, a sports agent and representative of Shaquille O'Neal.

In August, May walked away from the indoor team. She told Coach Mick Haley that her heart wasn't in the game, that there was no fun left for her. At the Pan Am Games in July, May found herself watching the beach volleyball competition with envy. "I kept thinking I should be out there on the sand," May says. "We toured with the Brazilians after that and I did the tour, but when I told the coaches I was quitting, you know, it wasn't hard at all. It was very easy. So I knew I'd made the right decision."

There are whispers, of course. Lots of whispers. That May was unhappy because Haley had her as the No. 2 setter instead of No. 1 or because the team was struggling to even qualify for the Olympics or because of the politicking that is always around Olympic team sports, where you are supposed to pay your dues, no matter how talented you are, where a 22-year-old rookie should have to hang around for four years and be a star in 2004.

"Honestly," May says, "it's none of that. It was all me. It was about me, deep in my heart, wanting to play beach."

McPeak, who, with Nancy Reno, had been a heavy favorite to win gold at the first beach volleyball Olympic competition in 1996, had called May last year, when May was still at Long Beach State. "I asked Misty then to be my partner," McPeak says.

"I was so in awe when Holly called," May says, "and I think even then I wanted to say yes. But there were all these other expectations. So I said no."

Expectations.

McPeak understands them. McPeak and Reno, both photogenic and personable, were not only supposed to win gold but also sell the sport to the world. Her Olympic experience? "Frankly," McPeak says, "it was terrible." McPeak and Reno were a volatile pairing. The two were, let's say, not friends off the sand, and they played terribly in Atlanta. "We didn't win gold," McPeak says. "We didn't win anything."

For three years after Atlanta, McPeak played with Lisa Arce. At the start of this season, amazingly, McPeak and Reno were together again. They won an FIVB tournament in Toronto. "Things weren't going anywhere with Lisa so we broke up," McPeak says. "Why did Nancy and I try it again? I don't know. But it didn't work. If anything, things were worse between us than before."

Then McPeak tried playing with Gabrielle Reece, but Reece got hurt and McPeak said the two didn't mesh. It was about this time that McPeak heard May had left the national team and was interested in going to the beach.

"I was trying out some other partners," McPeak says, "but I called Misty anyway. Misty hadn't been playing beach and she was better than all the other ones."

"If Holly wanted me," May says, "I was going to do this."

There is a big problem though.

The qualifying process for the 2000 Sydney Olympics has nothing to do with the United States and everything to do with the FIVB, the international governing body for volleyball, beach and otherwise.

Olympic berths are determined solely by points earned at a worldwide series of tournaments lasting nearly 18 months. Five of those events already have been held. Only eight more are scheduled, though McPeak says the word is three more tournaments might be added.

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