LONDON -- Kerri Walsh Jennings had won her gold medal. Now she was searching, skipping through the sand. She was looking for her family in the seats at the beach volleyball stadium. Finally, she found them.
Hugged her mom. Hugged her dad. Hugged her husband, fellow volleyball pro Casey Jennings, who then handed over the couple's two children to Kerri. She cradled one in each arm and squeezed them.
Sundance and Joey Jennings, ages 2 and 3, were not quite sure what to make of the crazy scene swirling around them, with people cheering and music playing. But they had a vague idea that something pretty cool had happened.
"They know if their mom's happy," Casey said. "And if Mom's happy, they are
Mom was very happy. So was Mom's volleyball partner, Misty May-Treanor. Together here Wednesday night, they finished off one of the most impressive Olympic journeys in history by winning their third straight gold medal.
Prince Harry was watching from the lower seats. But the gold medalists were the true Olympic royalty. Even if the prince and his family did not visit with the twosome after the match to acknowledge it.
"There's a dinner at their house tomorrow," May-Treanor joked.
A round of toasts would be more in order.
Few athletes manage to win gold at three consecutive Olympics. Walsh Jennings and May-Treanor accomplished it without losing a match. Walsh Jennings, the Stanford and Archbishop Mitty
The capper was Wednesday night's 21-16, 21-16 victory over another American duo, Jennifer Kessy and April Ross, who won the silver medal. The result surprised no one. Including Kessy and Ross.
"They are the best team of all time," Kessy said. "It doesn't feel too bad to be second to them right now. We tried everything. They gave us nothing. They hit no mediocre shots."
Technically, the volleyball was at a high level throughout the match. But in years to come, when Walsh Jennings remembers this night, she will more recall the emotion of realizing it was the last time she'll ever play alongside May-Treanor, who has announced her retirement effective immediately at age 35.
Walsh Jennings, a year younger, said she will return for another Olympic effort in Brazil four years from now. But the knowledge that this would be her last trip through the sand with May-Treanor was the subtext of the entire last two weeks.
They made it look easy. It wasn't. The twosome had spent two years apart after Beijing, with Walsh Jennings having her two children and May-Treanor rupturing her Achilles tendon on a "Dancing With The Stars" appearance.
When they reunited in 2011, the gears took a while to mesh. There were big adjustments. Walsh Jennings insisted on bringing along her kids to every tournament, with her sister or Casey helping care for them on far-flung continents. May-Treanor was rehabbing the tendon. They finished ninth in a couple of tournaments.
But they were always pointing to London. And when they arrived, performing at the Games' most spectacular venue in Central London with Big Ben looming over the south bleachers, they gradually picked up steam.
"They got better with every match," said Casey Jennings, analyzing his wife's tournament. "And as it went on, the more focused they were and the better they played. And they were mean. They didn't just want to win. They wanted to win big."
On the medal stand, May-Treanor turned to Walsh Jennings and described it another way.
"We had this painting we were working on through the process," May-Treanor said. "Through this competition, I kept saying we're painting it but we haven't finished it. But that's what we did tonight. We finished it. That's what I was telling Kerri. We finished the painting. We did it."
Walsh Jennings was trying to stay in the moment, fighting sniffles.
"I'm proud of finishing it the way we finished it," Walsh Jennings said. "We've been together 11 years. This was
"We've lived so much life together," added May-Treanor. "The first two times at the Olympics, it was all volleyball, volleyball, volleyball. This time was so much more about the friendship and the journey. Volleyball was a small part of it."
The two leave quite a legacy. Beach volleyball was invented in Hawaii around 1915 but only debuted as an Olympic sport in 1996. It was a curiosity at first. But thanks in no small part to Walsh Jennings and May-Treanor's dominance, sand pits have been built for the beach game from coast to coast.
In fact, interest in the sport has increased to the point that on Wednesday, when the two women were doing post-match interviews, so many reporters crowded onto a platform that it collapsed. No one was hurt.
This slightly frightening but crazy moment concluded an evening that also had a whimsical feeling to it, given that one USA team was facing another USA team and the stadium announcer was forced to drum up enthusiasm by screaming: "And who is rooting for the team in RED?! And who is rooting for the team in BLUE?!"
The four players did indeed know each other well. They had been competing against each other since high school or junior volleyball leagues. Word is that Ross may even become Walsh Jennings' partner at the Brazil Games in 2016, though there is plenty of time to make that decision. But the two teams had occasionally trained or scrimmaged each other over the past two years at Laguna Beach or Manhattan Beach, because all four are from California.
So you could say that, even though this was a gold medal match, it was also the state championship.
"Yes," said Walsh Jennings, the one Bay Area native of the four. "And NorCal won."
Contact Mark Purdy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 408-920-5092.