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U.S. Wins, Meets Brazil for Gold


SYDNEY, Australia — In the patois of the beach, the word "killer" translates to "very good." As in: Making it to the final of the beach volleyball tournament at the Sydney Olympics--that's killer.

Dude, Dain Blanton of Santa Monica and Eric Fonoimoana of Hermosa Beach are killer.

The U.S. pair, seeded ninth, kept up their unexpectedly strong Olympic run by defeating Luis Maia and Joao Brenha of Portugal, 15-12, in today's semifinal round at Bondi Beach. The gold-medal game is Tuesday; the Americans will face Ze Marco de Melo and Ricardo Santos of Brazil, who defeated Jorg Ahmann and Axel Hager of Germany, 15-5, in today's late semifinal.

"This is a dream come true," Blanton said later, his legs and back caked with sand after the victory, a 70-minute marathon.

The Sydney Games mark beach volleyball's second appearance on the program at the Olympics. At the 1996 Atlanta Games, American men finished one-two, Karch Kiraly and Kent Steffes defeating Mike Dodd and Mike Whitmarsh in the final.

The spectacle of beach volleyball--with hard-bodied guys and bikini-clad gals both on the sand and in the stands--remains one of the most popular draws at the Games. The 10,000-seat stadium at Bondi has been packed throughout the Olympic tournament.

In the States, however, both the men's and women's pro tours have been dogged since Atlanta by financial problems. In 1995, prize money for the men's tour totaled more than $4 million; this year it's slightly more than $1 million.

Promoters have been unabashedly hoping for an American medal at the beach in the Games. The two U.S. women's teams, however, were eliminated Saturday in the quarterfinals.

Both U.S. men's teams made it to the quarterfinals at Bondi. But, by luck of the draw, they had to play each other at 9 this morning (3 p.m. Saturday in Los Angeles).

Blanton and Fonoimoana needed only 31 minutes to put away Kevin Wong of Los Angeles and Robert Heidger Jr. of Redondo Beach, 15-3.

Heidger and Wong had been seeded seventh. But Heidger said afterward, "We just couldn't weather the storm they threw at us."

Maia and Brenha, the Portuguese, had made it to the semifinals four years ago, losing to Dodd and Whitmarsh, 15-13, after 65 minutes. "We have been training for four years now and we are ready to win," Maia said before today's semifinals.

Nope. The first hour of the game was punctuated by lengthy strings of side-outs--25 at one point, 20 at another.

The Portuguese had gone ahead 11-10 when the Americans were penalized a point by referee Peter Paul Hreszczuk of Austria, who said Fonoimoana had taken too long to get back to the court after a timeout.

"We were out there an hour, it's [11-10], and he decides to give them a free point because Eric is cleaning his glasses?" Blanton asked later.

"Maybe that was a wake-up call," Fonoimoana said.

Blanton served down the line. A gutsy serve but, as he said later, "We needed something gutsy." The ball hit the tape. Ace. 12-11.

Next, he served cross-court. Another ace. 12-12.

On Blanton's next serve, Fonoimoana blocked Maia. 13-12.

Then came a Blanton touch shot down the side of the court. 14-12.

On match point, Blanton served hard. The ball tipped the net. Unlike tennis, in beach volleyball a net-tipped serve is still in play. Maia lunged but could not get it. Game.

"It was a battle," Fonoimoana said afterward. Killer.

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