WHEN VOLLEYBALLERS Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh first joined forces on the beach in 2001, they could not have foreseen what their union would produce seven years later: prime-time theater, a standard of success beyond compare—and a new verb.
Near the end of one of the most astonishing winning streaks in any sport—from Aug. 26, 2007, to Aug. 31, 2008, the pair won a record 112 straight matches and 19 straight titles in all competitions—May-Treanor and Walsh settled into a slot in NBC's prime-time coverage to defend their '04 Olympic title. As the network broadcast their matches live from Beijing into American homes for seven evenings during the Olympic fortnight, the team's enthusiasm, skill and gritty refusal to lose riveted millions. For all their dominance, May-Treanor and Walsh were easy to root for. Their chemistry was authentic, their joy in scoring big points infectious. As mentally exhausting as the pressure was in Beijing, the two welcomed it. "We were proud to help the sport get that kind of exposure," says May-Treanor, 31.
Their one close call in Beijing showed May-Treanor and Walsh at their indomitable best. In the first set of a round-of-16 match the Belgian team of Liesbeth Mouha and Liesbet van Breedam led 18--12 and 22--21. Then the Belgians got maywalshed, as volleyball legend Karch Kiraly puts it. Behind their arsenal of digs, blocks and kills, the Americans stormed back, scoring three straight points to prevail 24--22. They took the next set 21--10 to win the match and were not seriously challenged again on their way to the gold. " Athens was an adrenaline rush, lightning in a bottle," said Walsh after they beat China's Tian Jia and Wang Jie in the final. "This is more like soulful."
Temperamental opposites—bubbly and high-strung, the 30-year-old Walsh takes weeks to get over a rare loss, while the businesslike May-Treanor moves on quickly—the two share a work ethic, a fierce competitiveness and a developmental history. When they teamed up in '01, May-Treanor, a three-time indoor All-America at Long Beach State, had just one year of pro beach experience; Walsh, a four-time indoor All-America at Stanford, had none. Learning the game together, they forgave mistakes in a way that other beach partners often do not. "We grew up in the sport together," says May-Treanor, "so we've been patient with each other. That's been a big part of our success."
Will that success—or the partnership itself—continue? Walsh and her husband, AVP star Casey Jennings, are expecting their first child in the spring. May-Treanor, who tore her left Achilles tendon on Oct. 3 while rehearsing for
Dancing with the Stars
, has plans to start a family with her husband, major league catcher Matt Treanor. If they have played their last match together, we may never see another partnership as winning.