Beware of Underdogs
Holly McPeak holds beach volleyball records for all-time victories, prize money and tournaments played.
Her partner, Elaine Youngs, is also among the top 10 in victories and earnings.
McPeak is the only woman to play beach volleyball in two Olympics, and her fifth-place finishes in 1996 and 2000 are the best by a U.S. woman.
She and Youngs enter the 2004 Games with the best record of any team in the world over the past two months. Yet despite all those credentials, they somehow remain “the other” U.S. women’s Olympic team -- lost in the two-year shadow of dominance cast by Kerri Walsh and Misty May.
And that’s fine with them.
“I like being the underdog,” McPeak said. “Let somebody else be the gold-medal favorite. I just want to go there and win the gold medal.”
That’s not to say they suffer from an inferiority complex.
McPeak and Youngs, ranked No. 4 in the world, have been on a tear. They have finished outside of the top three only twice in 13 tournaments this year and have won six times in nine tournaments since May 30, including four consecutive victories on the Assn. of Volleyball Professionals Nissan Series.
May and Walsh, ranked No. 1 in the world, had 15 consecutive victories between July 2003 and May 2004 but have won only once since. May has battled a strained abdominal muscle during that stretch and will play the Olympics at less than 100%.
So as the Olympics approach, the underdog status of McPeak and Youngs has come into question.
“I wouldn’t necessarily say we are the favorites,” Youngs said. “But we definitely have a real good shot at winning gold. That’s our goal. I know we both want it really bad.”
Having both players healthy gives McPeak and Youngs an advantage. Not only is May injured, but so are members of the Nos. 2 and 3 teams in the world. Adriana Behar of Brazil has a chronic knee problem and her partner, Shelda Bede, has nerve damage in her hand.
Sandra Pires and Ana Paula Connelly of Brazil, ranked No. 3, have played only once since June 23 because of a calf injury to Pires.
It’s an interesting twist for McPeak, who entered each of the previous two Olympics with injured partners. In 1996, Nancy Reno had a torn rotator cuff. In 2000, she played with May, who was battling a similar abdominal injury.
“Maybe the third time will be the charm,” McPeak said.
“The last two times I felt like I was training by myself leading up to the Olympics, so it’s nice to be able to train together and stay focused on what we’re doing.”
Youngs was well aware of the history McPeak has had with her partners and let out a deep sigh when the two completed their final pre-Olympic tournament July 31.
“Thank God I’m healthy,” Youngs said. “In order for our team to do well, I have to be able to put the ball away, so I’m glad Holly has a healthy partner.”
McPeak, 35, is a defensive whiz. At 5 feet 7, she has been selected AVP most valuable player four times and defensive player of the year six times. Youngs, 34, is a 6-foot force at the net. She was named the AVP’s MVP, best offensive player and best blocker in 2002.
Their contrasting styles make for perfect team chemistry and have also led to a unique style of offense: hitting the ball over on the second shot.
Opponents try to play away from the strengths of McPeak and Youngs by serving every ball to McPeak.
The theory is that McPeak would receive the serve and pass to Youngs, who would then have to set. McPeak would then be forced to negotiate a bigger blocker when hitting the third shot over.
But McPeak’s ball control is so precise that she can receive the serve and set to Youngs with her pass. Youngs can then slam the ball on the second shot.
They don’t do it on every play, but have played that way since they teamed up three years ago.
It remains effective even though opponents know it is coming because it disrupts the natural bump-set-spike rhythm of the game.
“It’s very effective against a lot of teams,” Youngs said. “It’s not easy to defend if you do it in sync and do it right.”
Strategy and a balanced attack are only part of the equation that makes them successful.
Both are fierce competitors, often expressing their emotions out loud during matches. They also have a unique bond from having played the underdog the last two years, and both are determined to overcome that by making a mark at the Olympics.
Their proximity in age adds to the chemistry, which spills over off the court. They are friends bonded by a type of trust and understanding that is difficult to find in competitive environments.
“We’re both responsible adults that take care of our own stuff,” McPeak said. “We both know that the other will show up on time, eat well and take care of our bodies.
“We’re both mature people that know when our partner shows up, she is going to come with everything she has.”
And because they will be 39 and 38 by the time the next Olympics roll around, neither is taking this opportunity for granted.
They have worked hard to qualify for the Olympics, using their recent run of success to hold off Annett Davis and Jenny Johnson Jordan for the second, and final, berth.
Leading up to the Olympics, they instituted an intense practice regimen that included recruiting other AVP players -- men and women -- to simulate potential opponents.
“We’re hungry,” Youngs said. “We’re in a good flow and it feels good going in there with that kind of flow. I’m starting to feel the excitement. It’s been a long qualifying process, but now we’re finally preparing for the tournament we’ve been working toward.”
Beach volleyball was made an official Olympic sport in 1996. U.S. men have won gold at both Olympics since then, but no U.S. women’s team has won a medal.
“We’d like to change that this year,” Youngs said. “I truly believe that we can.”
Even if they are “the other” team.