It’s everywhere you go in London, like a giant Pepto-Bismol bottle had been shaken too hard and let loose all over the Queen’s business – on signs, on banners, and covering the mats in venues. It’s the shocking pink that is London 2012’s color scheme.
So beach volley baller Kerri Walsh thought she’d do her part to promote the Olympic spirit – by getting pink eye. “I woke up this morning looking like Rocky Balboa,” she said a week before today’s gold medal final.
Seeing through all that pink also had her and partner Misty May-Treanor seeing red. After mowing down their opponents in the last two Olympics in straight sets – that’s 16 matches and 32 sets – they lost their first set on Olympic sand that day. And while they eventually prevailed over Austrian sisters Doris and Stefanie Schwaiger, the pair weren’t happy. “We want to crush everybody. We don’t care where they’re from,” Walsh said of their mentality coming into the final.
And crush them they did, for a record-setting third consecutive Olympic gold, even if their opponents were teammates. First-time Olympians April Ross and Jennifer Kessy of the US had the misfortune of facing May-Treanor and Walsh Jennings in the final, and while Ross-Kessy had beaten them before, they couldn’t repeat in London. “We gave it our all,” says Kessy, who grew up playing both May-Treanor and Walsh Jennings in southern California as teens. “Kerri and Misty played unbelievably. They were tough to stop, and didn’t make very many mistakes at all.” Ross agreed. “We always look for little holes to get in there, and score a point here and there, and they gave us zero openings,” she says of the 21:16, 21:16 score.
At 6’2”, Walsh Jennings is a human wall at the net, one of the most effective blockers in the sport. In London, she deflected 22 points to earn a spot in the gold medal match, and a strong defense was the key to defending their title. “It was just a matter of playing patient, disciplined defense against them,” says May-Treanor of their win. “The key was to break their serve.”
And that they did, with 10 more service attempts than Kessy-Ross and more successful attack attempts, thanks to Walsh’s hallmark spikes.
But as dominant as they were, getting to the final at the makeshift beach on Horse Guard’s Parade was hardly a given for May-Treanor and Walsh. After 2008, Walsh had two children (who were in the crowd to watch their mother earn her third gold medal), and May-Treanor tried her hand at dancing, with the stars, and injured her Achilles. “We took two years apart, and Misty and I both went through a lot of challenges,” says Walsh. “Physically and emotionally, we grew up in those two years. And when we got back together, we wanted to do it right. We wanted to understand that what we have is special, and we wanted to cherish that, from the first day when we had lunch and talked about getting back together, to today.”
The partnership wasn’t going to be the same after all those personal changes; it couldn’t be. “They said they wanted to come together for their third Olympics, but their platform had completely changed,” Michael Gervais, a sports psychologist in Los Angeles whom Walsh Jennings had been seeing and who counseled the pair throughout their preparation for London, tells TIME.com. “Early on, they primarily saw themselves as athletes. But now, in their third Olympics, they are much more dynamic as people – they have families and different relationships. Their value sets have changed.”
May-Treanor says London was about more than earning their history-making third gold. “The first two medals were more about volleyball,” she says. “The friendship we had was there, but it was all volley ball, volley ball. This was so much more about friendship, togetherness and the journey, and volley ball was just a small part of it.”
Together since 2001, the pair went into the Beijing Games with a year-long streak of 101 wins. Both began as indoor volleyball players; May-Treanor’s first partner, her father, an Olympic volley ball player who competed in 1968, was also Walsh’s first coach and the two played against each other in high school.
They didn’t actually meet until Walsh, who idolized May-Treanor, then playing on the professional beach volleyball tour, asked May-Treanor to autograph her towel. It wasn’t long until the duo were playing together and Walsh was sleeping over at her new partner’s house as they trained to become the most dominant women’s pair in the sport.
Since Beijing, however, with two years off, the pair haven’t been as dominant, losing the world champions earlier this year to Brazil. That was unfamiliar territory for them, and with all the other changes in their lives, the pair wanted to make sure they were both mentally and physically prepared for the challenges they would face in London, so they consulted with Gervais. “One of the things they understood is, ‘Let’s do the work ahead of time, so when we find ourselves in a challenging situation, we have a sense of how to move through it gracefully and powerfully.’” That means opening up to each other about not just their performance on the sand, but about their expectations and how they would achieve them, he says. “We just got them to share honestly what it is they wanted out of this journey together,” says Gervais. “One was to win gold, and the second was to connect in a deeper way through their families and through each other.”
Which is why every Olympic celebration for the duo have included an impromptu reach into the stands for hugs and congratulations from family members. This time, Walsh’s entourage included her two sons, aged 2 and 3.
It was a bittersweet celebration, however, since the history-making match is May-Treanor’s last; she plans to retire after London. “[This medal] is way different,” says Walsh, who is hoping to continue playing with another partner. “It’s way, way more special. The journey in the past two years that we shared together changed my life; I know it sounds really dramatic, and cheesy, but it has. Our competitive journey together is done, and that’s a big deal. It crushes me a little bit. It makes it really hard, really bittersweet, but I’m really proud that we went out the way we went out.”