Misty May-Treanor, Kerri Walsh Jennings, April Ross, Jennifer Kessy: Olympics gold on the line

LONDON-- This much is certain: "The Star-Spangled Banner" will be played after the women's beach volleyball gold medal match Wednesday.

Still to be determined: who will be standing atop the medal stand?

Two-time defending beach volleyball gold medalists Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings advanced to the gold medal match by edging No. 2-seeds Xue Chen and Zhang Xi of China Tuesday night in two nail-biting sets, 22-20, 22-20.

They will face the American pair of April Ross and Jennifer Kessy, who stunned the top-seeded Brazilian team of Juliana Silva and Larissa Franca Tuesday night in the rain, 15-21, 21-19, 15-12. The all-American final is Wednesday night at 9 p.m. London time.

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May-Treanor and Walsh struggled early against the Chinese team, which won the bronze medal in Beijing. But they rallied from six points down in the first game, and withstood a set point at 20-19 in the second game before winning their 20th consecutive Olympic match.

"It was amazing. I feel like we eked it out and we eked it out with a lot of heart," Walsh said. "We didn't play that great because they made us so uncomfortable. They're just big, physical athletes."

May-Treanor added, "I am very, very proud of how we really stuck together, stayed patient and adjusted."

May-Treanor could just as easily have been talking about their career.

With their gold medals in Athens in 2004 and in Beijing in 2008, Walsh and May-Treanor captivated America with their volleyball skill and telegenic charm.

Then, the real world came calling

First May-Treanor, 35, ruptured her Achilles tendon while competing on the reality-TV program "Dancing with the Stars." Walsh, 33, gave birth to a son, Joey, in 2009, and another son, Sundance, in 2010.

They didn't resume playing together until 2011, and the time off hurt. While they still were one of the world's best teams, they were no longer THE best team.

They finished second in Rome, fifth in Moscow, ninth in Shanghai. The team that once boasted a 112-match winning streak was no longer invincible. They entered London as the No. 3 seed, and some observers didn't think they'd reach the finals, especially after they dropped a set for the first time in an earlier match against an Austrian pair.

But after dispatching their first six opponents here, they stand one match away from an unprecedented three-peat.

Ross and Kessy are hoping to spoil that storybook ending. In their first Olympics. they swept through their opponents undefeated (6-0), but three of their matches were extended to three sets.

Ross, 30, and Kessy, 35, started playing together in 2007, successfully transitioning from the indoor game where they both starred at the University of Southern California.

They've been playing in the shadow of May-Treanor and Walsh for years. But Wednesday, they'll have a chance to show America -- and the world -- how good they are.

The last time the U.S. had two teams in the Olympic beach volleyball finals was at the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta where Karch Kiraly and Kent Steffes defeated the team of Mike Dodd and Mike Whitmarsh.

(David Nielsen, managing editor of Scripps Howard News Service, is part of the Scripps team covering the London Olympics. Contact him at nielsend@shns.com.)

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service)

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