LONDON – On a sand court in the same neighborhood as Buckingham Palace, at a beach volleyball final attended by Prince Harry, Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings continued their Olympic reign.
May-Treanor and Walsh Jennings won their third consecutive Olympic gold with a 2-0 (21-16, 21-16) win over fellow Americans Jennifer Kessy and April Ross on Wednesday.
“It’s up there with Michael Phelps, probably,” Ross said of the historic significance of the dynasty she and her teammate fell victim to at Horse Guards Parade.
Phelps became the most decorated Olympian of all time in London, finishing his career with 22 medals in four Olympics. May-Treanor and Walsh Jennings went 21-0 in their three Olympics, losing just one set along the way, and now own three of the five gold medals awarded in beach volleyball’s Olympic history.
Like Phelps, May-Treanor is planning to retire after these Games.
“It’s time for me to be a wife,” said May-Treanor, 35, whose husband, Matt Treanor, is a Los Angeles Dodgers catcher. “I want to be a mom. And share time with my family.”
“My mind says it’s time, my body says it’s time, and it’s the right time.”
The finality of it made Walsh Jennings especially emotional at every stage of the celebration -- after a Ross serve sailed long on match point, on the medals podium and in the post-match press conference, where she said to May-Treanor, “I’m glad you went out the way you deserve.”
In addition to the three Olympic golds, May-Treanor and Walsh Jennings have three world titles (2003, 2005, and 2007).
Kessy called them “the best team of all time.”
“It doesn’t feel too bad to be second to them,” she said.
Despite life changes – namely, the births of Walsh Jennings’ two sons -- and setbacks, including May-Treanor rupturing her Achilles tendon while practicing for “Dancing With the Stars” shortly after the 2008 Games, U.S. beach volleyball’s most famous and successful twosome again finished second to none at the Olympics.
“I still feel like, ‘Somebody pinch me that this just happened,’” May-Treanor said. “We’ve been through a lot the past couple years and really had to work on a lot of things, both on and off the court.”
They went separate ways after the 2008 Olympics, with May-Treanor saying she was done playing and Walsh Jennings starting her family.
Both played briefly with Nicole Branagh before they reunited last year to make a run for London.
They seemed more vulnerable than ever before coming into the London Games. They finished second more than first in 2011. They had two ninth-place finishes earlier this season.
The two-time defending Olympic champions were seeded third for these Games.
“I never really understood what peaking meant until this time around,” Walsh Jennings said. “I just wanted to be good all the time. …We had a really terrible year up until about a month ago.”
They lost their first set in Olympic competition to Austria during round-robin matches but seemed to return to their usual invincible ways as they marched toward the final.
In the final, they were flawless, the silver-medal winners said.
“I don’t even know if they made any mistakes,” Kessy said. “They didn’t give us any openings.”
May-Treanor and Walsh Jennings were 27-5 all-time against their American opponents coming into the final. They had lost to them once in three matches this year.
“A big reason Misty and I are gold medalists is because of those girls,” Walsh Jennings said. “They push us so hard.”
Kessy, 35, said she will play one more year but likely won’t continue until the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. That will leave the 30-year-old Ross looking for a new teammate.
Asked whether that might be Walsh Jennings, 33, who also plans to continue playing, Ross said: “I want to play with the best player in Rio, so it’s definitely a possibility.”
Asked about Ross, Walsh Jennings said: “She’s someone I would be honored to play with.”
Those, of course, are decisions for another time. Wednesday was about celebrating the three-peat and the all-American final.
“For us to meet in the gold medal match, it says a lot about our sport, a lot about the teams up here,” May-Treanor said. “I’m happy about the four of us really sharing this moment. They have no reason to hang their heads.”
That it happened in a 2012 Olympic venue bordered by Big Ben, with a view of the Houses of Parliament and the London Eye, gave it a “British tint,” Walsh Jennings said.
Kessy and Ross saw Prince Harry arrive on their way into the match.
“We actually thought the cameras were for us,” Ross said. “We’re really stoked that he thought it was worthwhile to come out to watch.”
The beach volleyball version of the night’s royalty on hand, May-Treanor and Walsh Jennings, did not have a brush with the prince.
“There’s a dinner at their house tomorrow,” May-Treanor joked.
Vicki Michaelis, who covered the past six Olympic Games as USA TODAY’s lead Olympics writer, is the Carmical Distinguished Professor of Sports Journalism at the University of Georgia.