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Americans win gold and bronze

ATHENS -- Only at beach volleyball, Olympic beach volleyball no less, can you be treated to thumping musical selections after every point; to Brazilians dressed like slightly more colorful Oakland Raiders fans; to pumped up gold-medal winners teetering precariously from a railing high above the soft Grecian sand to greet fans; and, after the insanity has subsided, to Prince Albert of Monaco in a crested navy blazer and crisp summer white slacks dispensing the medals.

Yes, this is the sport that seems to best mirror the chaos of an Olympic Games crammed into a too-small nation during the too-windy, too-warm month of August. All you can do is sit back and marvel that it works so well.

For the purists, of course, Tuesday night was marvelous because Americans Kerri Walsh and Misty May rose up to dominate a long-running Brazilian success story. They ended the USA's long medal drought in the sport's short Olympic history by earning gold. In 1996, when the beachers debuted in beachless Atlanta, and four years ago on the fabled Bondi Beach in Australia, U.S. competitors could not overcome the formidable presence of Brazilian and Australian teams.

But that changed with the Walsh-May two-set romp on the Aegean coast south of central Athens. They transformed themselves here from the two faces in the "volleyball-in-the-snow" Visa ad that broke way back on Super Bowl Sunday, into a pair who might just be getting started as a superpower with years left to build on what they started in Greece.

Earlier Tuesday, Americans Holly McPeak and Elaine Youngs overcame Australians Natalie Cook and Nicole Sanderson in three sets to earn the Olympic bronze medal. Cook was denied her third consecutive medal. She was part of a gold medal duo four years ago with Kerri Pottharst at the Sydney Games.

McPeak and Youngs were not kicking sand on the moment, however. You do not find this at every Olympic venue, but these two seemed deeply moved to have bronze medals to take home. They seemed deeply appreciative that they have extraordinary Olympic teammates in Walsh and May, who once put together a 90-match winning streak on the pro circuit, where they've each earned mid-six-figure career prize money.

"They form the best team ever in beach volleyball -- it's no secret," McPeak said.

While it was no secret that Brazil's Shelda Bede and Adriana Behar, teammates since 1995, are legends of this sport, they never mounted any sustained point-scoring. Despite playing in front of a crowd of 10,000 heavily geared to all things Brazilian -- flags, banners, head ornaments, costumes including a modified Superman, and green-yellow painted faces -- the duo was unable to improve on its performance of 2000. Then Bede and Behar also were silver medalists, losing to the Australians, one of whom was Cook.

Tuesday marked the first time in three Olympic beach volleyball tournaments that an Aussie team was absent from the medals podium.

As the Australians slipped a notch, the Americans took it up one. Walsh and May rolled through the first set against Brazil after opening with a 4-0 cushion. In a decisive second set with early drama, the United States took a 6-5 lead and never relinquished it.

Ahead 17-10, May made a ballet-like save that Walsh launched overhead. May popped up out of a sea of sand and delivered an uncontested scoring volley between the lunging Brazilians. It wasn't quite over, but it was, in that moment, essentially over.

Earlier this summer, that exchange might have been hard to imagine, harder still to imagine in the Olympic final, when May went public with news that she was battling an abdominal muscle injury. Bronze medalist McPeak has been there. She competed in 1996 and 2000, as she recalled here, alongside "semi-injured teammates."

But Walsh said she never worried about a semi-injured May.

"I knew Misty would be back," said Walsh, her eyes misty from an evening of emotion. "She is the most diligent person. Misty alleviated all of my fears. She was true to her word."

May knew she came into Athens with a question mark dancing over her head, but she was happy she will leave with a laurel wreath in its place.

"A lot of people had doubts, and I tried to tell people I had no doubt," May said. "There was no way. It took two weeks (of therapy) and I haven't felt anything."

Physically, that is. Before her semifinal match, a victory against McPeak and Youngs, she quietly sprinkled the ashes of her deceased mother over the sands of the Olympic venue on Monday night. Barbara May died of cancer two years ago. That was the private moment. Tuesday, she and Walsh filled the outdoor stadium with their joy in a very public manner.

When it was over, they frolicked in that deep, unforgiving sand like kids on holiday. Then they ran toward the crowds high above, leaping for flags and high fives.

"Beach volley has been the hit of this Olympics," Walsh said later. "Misty and I worked our butts off for three years for this."

As the celebration ensued, and before Monaco's Prince Albert arrived to pad across the grains of sand in his polished finery, May and Walsh could endure no more the temptation to join the crowd and share their triumph with friends and fans. So they allowed some hearty souls to hoist them atop a narrow ledge along the railed barrier.

There they stood, not worried about falling. It was a night for standing tall and above the rest.