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A Return to Form

After her Olympic career was nearly derailed by a "Dancing With the Stars" mishap, volleyball phenom Misty May-Treanor prepares for a big comeback in London

Author MICHAEL KAPLAN

“DANCING WITH THE STARS” seemed like a good idea at the time. Misty May-Treanor had, after all, snagged a pair of Olympic gold medals in beach volleyball in 2004 and 2008 with partner Kerri Walsh, making her a star. And she had won more tournaments than any other female competitor in a sport played barefoot on sand, meaning she clearly knew how to jump high and land clean on a dicey surface. So when the show’s producers asked her to participate in the 2008 season, she jumped at the chance.

During rehearsals for week three, however, May-Treanor hopped back from her partner, heard a pop and, as she puts it, “felt like somebody had hit me from behind with a baseball bat.” The misstep ruptured her Achilles tendon, leaving her sidelined with crutches and a cast that stretched up to her knee. The injury took her out of the show, obviously, but worse, it threatened to end her career as a beach volleyball superstar. Considering that she had hoped to go for her third gold medal at the London 2012 Olympic Games, in what would probably be her final bid for glory, it was all the more heartbreaking.

May-Treanor, 34 and photogenic enough to have been tapped for guest spots on “CSI: Miami” and “Wizards of Waverly Place,” made the most of her misfortune. While recuperating, she got a master’s degree in coaching and athletic administration, and spent more quality time with her husband of nearly eight years, Matt Treanor, a catcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Meanwhile, her partner Walsh also seemed to be moving away from the sport. With two gold medals and nothing left to prove, Walsh had a second baby while May-Treanor was hitting the books.

Settling into a quiet life may have made sense immediately after the injury, but the plan didn’t stick for long. May-Treanor got restless. On the mend, she played a bit in 2010 with Big Ten college division Player of the Year Nicole Branagh at her side, a partnership that didn’t quite take. A year later, Walsh also began plotting her return, with, ironically, Branagh as her partner. But before that went very far, May-Treanor invited Walsh to lunch. Over the course of the meal, the pair decided to try playing together again. Walsh jettisoned Branagh, and training began in earnest.

May-Treanor and Walsh went public with their reunion at a small tournament in Brazil last year. Though the teammates lost in the finals to a hometown twosome, that was beside the point. “We played at a high level and came back,” says May-Treanor. “We realized that we could still do it and we saw that we still enjoyed it. The passion is still there for us.”

WOMEN’S BEACH VOLLEYBALL is a frequently misunderstood sport. Because it usually takes place on a picturesque oceanfront and its athletes are barefoot and in bikinis, some write it off as little more than California flakiness pushed through a sporting spectrum. That’s a sore point for May-Treanor. “People think we just show up and play,” she says. “They don’t realize that we train as hard as other athletes.”

She and Walsh work out together every day. They train with individual coaches four or five times a week, and push themselves with a phalanx of physical trainers and strength specialists. Then there is the financial pressure of the game, which makes it feel less like a traditional team sport and more like poker. “We’re not guaranteed a paycheck when we show up at a tournament,” May-Treanor says. “We have to do well in order to get the big prize money.”

Of course, when May-Treanor began playing beach volleyball as a girl, making money was the furthest thing from her mind. The game was part of her culture; it ran in her blood. The daughter of two beach volleyball players (her dad was an Olympic athlete), she grew up near Muscle Beach in Santa Monica, Calif., a magnet for the sport’s best players.

She teamed up with Walsh in 2001, after the Sydney Olympic Games, in which Walsh played indoor volleyball and May-Treanor competed on the beach with another teammate. “Our first year, Kerri and I did not win a single tournament,” May-Treanor remembers. “A lot of teams dismantle as soon as they experience a down period, but we gave it time and made strides through the year, making some close finishes.”

The pair’s chemistry became evident at their maiden Olympic outing together, at the Athens 2004 Games. They won their first gold medals that year, outplaying another U.S. team in the semis and beating Brazil in the finals. Four years later in Beijing, May-Treanor and Walsh went for a repeat. “That was a completely different journey,” says May-Treanor. ” Beijing, for me, was about embracing the Olympic Games. When you go for your first gold, you’re so focused that you don’t get a sense of what the Olympics are. In Beijing, I went to watch boxing and table tennis. I visited the Olympic Village and saw what the Olympics are all about.” Winning a second gold medal in Beijing, she says, “was icing.”

May-Treanor expects the London Games to be another singular experience. Not cake, not icing, but something else entirely. It’s her comeback from forced retirement, a triumph of determination, and as such will stand as a life lesson on the power of perseverance. For her and Walsh, winning will be the perfect cap to an amazing career.

But while May-Treanor is laser-focused on what’s next, she hasn’t been able to resist the temptation to consider what the more distant future holds — a comeback of a different sort, perhaps. “You have to remember that I was not eliminated from ‘Dancing With the Stars,'” she says. “I wasn’t voted off. I left due to an injury. So there’s no reason why I can’t give it another try.”

She pauses. “And if they invite me back, I will go on in a heartbeat.”

MICHAEL KAPLAN is holding out for his invitation from “The Voice.”


BEATING ‘EM ON THE BEACH
Misty May-Treanor’s tips for making the most of your volleyball games this summer

BE THE BACKBOARD: “Passing is all about foot movement and not about swinging your arms. Keep your arms a beach ball’s length from your body, find the angle and let the ball bounce off your arms without swinging them. You want to be a human backboard.”

THROW AWAY THE RULES: “If you’re playing with a lot of beginners, don’t take beach volleyball too seriously, and forget about the rules. This game is all about everybody having fun and exercising. And don’t skimp on the sunscreen, or you’ll turn into a lobster.”

EASE UP ON THE SPIKE: “A lot of people love the power of spiking the ball. You should work on control first, and learn to put the ball where you want to put it. Make contact with the ball from under to over, putting a little spin on it, rather than hitting it from your shoulder.”

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