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U.S. Is Not Gold Standard Yet

American women have not won the Olympic championship, but May and Walsh have a strong chance to change that next year.

September 17, 2003|Mike Bresnahan | Times Staff Writer

Beach volleyball originated on the sands of Southern California, which is all groovy, beachy keen and cool, dude.

It's also why the U.S. believes it has a natural right to win every Olympic gold medal in beach volleyball.

In the same way Canada thinks it should be handed every gold medal in hockey -- think of it as invention being nine-tenths of the law -- a U.S. failure in Olympic beach volleyball is purely unacceptable to the dudes from the dunes.

So far, so gnarly.

Karch Kiraly and Kent Steffes won the gold medal in beach volleyball's debut at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Four years later, Dain Blanton and Eric Fonoimoana won in Sydney, Australia. Two Olympics, two U.S. gold medals.

Then there are the U.S. women. Two Olympics, no gold medals.

With the Athens Olympics less than a year away, that could change.

Misty May and Kerri Walsh have been runaway successes this season, winning three consecutive Olympic qualifying tournaments and all eight tournaments they entered on the Assn. of Volleyball Professionals domestic tour.

May, 26, and Walsh, 25, are as good as they are young. The U.S. will be watching intently in August.

"I am very surprised that we didn't win gold in the last two Olympics on the women's side as we had the talent to do so," said Sinjin Smith, president of the beach volleyball world council.

"That said, I would be even more surprised if we didn't win gold in 2004, as we have more talent than we have ever had with the women. Kerri and Misty are hard to beat anywhere, and Holly [McPeak] and Elaine [Youngs] are good enough to beat any team in the world today but Kerri and Misty, but that could come at any time."

May and Walsh are a somewhat-deceptive third in the world. They have played only six qualifying tournaments, while the Brazilian teams ahead of them have played eight tournaments. Fewer tournaments, in this case, mean fewer qualifying points.

McPeak and Youngs are a similarly deceptive eighth in the world after playing only five tournaments, the fewest among the top 10 teams. They also will benefit from more tournament appearances in the arduous 13-month qualifying process.

There are about 10 more tournaments before the Olympics begin, including the Olympic qualifier that runs Thursday through Sunday at the Home Depot Center in Carson. Next year's qualifier schedule is not completely set.

Teams can participate in as many tournaments as they wish, but only their top eight finishes count. Only two men's and two women's teams from each nation can qualify.

This week's tournament is particularly important because it is one of this year's two grand slams and is worth double the normal points.

"We'll know a lot more after this weekend," Blanton said.

Surprisingly, it is the U.S. men's teams that are looking at a tougher battle for a gold medal.

Blanton and Jeff Nygaard are 11th in the world after playing five tournaments. They won a qualifier in Greece and were the AVP's top team this season.

Beyond that, there are serious questions.

Todd Rogers and Sean Scott have a number of ninth-place finishes and a fifth place on the qualifying tour.

Fonoimoana and Kevin Wong recently formed an intriguing team, but they will lose qualifying points they accrued with past partners and must start from scratch.

Even Kiraly will throw his pink Speedo hat into the ring this week and compete in his first Olympic qualifier this season. Kiraly, who will be 43 in November, said he too would join the qualifying fray if he does well in Carson with Brent Doble.

For now, it is difficult to discount Blanton and Nygaard, the only U.S. team to win an Olympic qualifier this year.

"Blanton could be the best defensive player in the world right now," Smith said. "And Nygaard, who is new to the beach [from the U.S. indoor Olympic team], is one of the best blockers and has great all-around skills for a big guy."

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At a Glance

* What: FIVB Olympic-qualifying beach volleyball tournament.

* Where: The Home Depot Center in Carson.

* When: Thursday-Sunday.

* Tickets: $5 general admission Thursday or Friday; $10 Saturday or Sunday.

* Top men's teams to watch: Ricardo Santos and Emanuel Rego (Brazil); Marcio Araujo and Benjamin Insfran (Brazil); Martin Laciga and Paul Laciga (Switzerland); Dain Blanton and Jeff Nygaard (U.S.).

* Top women's teams to watch: Misty May and Kerri Walsh (U.S.); Adriana Behar and Shelda Bede (Brazil); Sandra Pires and Ana Paula (Brazil); Holly McPeak and Elaine Youngs (U.S.).

* Other U.S. teams to watch: Men -- Eric Fonoimoana and Kevin Wong; Todd Rogers and Sean Scott; Karch Kiraly and Brent Doble. Women -- Jenny Johnson Jordan and Annett Davis; Nancy Mason and Dianne DeNecochea.

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