The key looped through the chain April Ross wore around her neck didn't seem special, maybe for her locker or front door, until a closer examination showed the word "dream" etched onto it.
Kerri Walsh Jennings, Ross' partner at Huntington Beach in the final Assn. of Volleyball Professionals beach event of the season, wore a similar chain and key. Hers was inscribed with the word "breathe."
Those words are touchstones for the two women this season, motivating them to practice hard and be prepared to fend off feisty challengers — as they did Sunday in defeating sixth-seeded Heather Hughes and Whitney Pavlik, 22-20, 21-17, for the championship. Walsh Jennings and Ross swept all seven AVP event titles this season and compiled a 36-0 match record.
Those keys aren't trendy jewelry. They're tangible, visual prompts about the aspiration and perspiration that will be required as Walsh Jennings and Ross intensify their quest for an Olympic gold medal in Brazil in 2016.
"'Dream' is just to dream big," said Ross, whose superb serving was crucial for the top-seeded duo against scrappy Hughes and hard-digging Pavlik and, before that, in a 21-17, 21-13 semifinal victory over Lauren Fendrick and Brooke Sweat. "We have some big dreams, and it's a reminder for me of what our ultimate goal is and what all the hard work is for."
Walsh Jennings chimed in with perfect timing, another sign of the unison the two have developed since they became partners late last season and began a 44-1 run that includes eight AVP titles in nine tournaments.
"For me, I just need sometimes to slow down," said Walsh, a mother of three and a three-time Olympic gold medalist with Misty May-Treanor. "This reminds me to take a breath."
That comment triggered a laugh from Ross. "I needed that one today," said the Costa Mesa resident, a silver medalist at the 2012 London Olympics. "I needed to take a couple of deep breaths."
The top-seeded men's team of Huntington Beach residents Jake Gibb and Casey Patterson also needed to refocus and regroup in their championship match Sunday. They succeeded, using every bit of their home-beach advantage to defeat third-seeded Tri Bourne and John Hyden, 21-16, 15-21, 15-10, and win their third straight AVP men's title.
Bourne's blocking was outstanding as the teams staged some powerful rallies, but Gibb and Patterson persevered on a clear, hot day.
"It was mental for us because we let this tournament slip through our hands last year, we felt like," Gibb said of their 2013 semifinal loss at this event. "We had won four straight last year coming into this one and we lost a nasty one. It hurt us. It bit us. And we wanted it ever since then. It was real, real special to us."
Patterson said the triumph had special significance because it took place on "my favorite beach in the world." He added, "To win here, where I train every day and grind, it's big."
Ross and Walsh Jennings were pushed in the semifinal by Fendrick and Sweat, whom they had defeated in five AVP finals. Fendrick and Sweat led the first game, 13-11, before Ross' quickness and strong serve helped her and Walsh Jennings take control.
Hughes and Pavlik, playing their fifth AVP event together, forced Ross and Walsh Jennings into long rallies with their acrobatics and sheer tenacity.
"I did not expect as big of a fight as we had. They played so well," Ross said. "Best defense I've seen in a really long time. Whitney, I gave her my hardest hits and I kept kicking myself because I kept saying, 'I can hit it harder and I'm going to get a kill,' and she would just be right there digging it every time. I feel like I only figured out the key at the very end of the match."
Pavlik, who has played with Ross on the FIVB international tour and with Walsh Jennings in five AVP tournaments, smiled throughout the match. She grinned afterward, too, justifiably proud of how well she and Hughes had played in what can be considered something of a moral victory.
"That's one thing you can guarantee from us happening is smiles on our faces and make each other laugh," said Pavlik, of Laguna Beach.
"These are the kinds of battles you want. You never want to lose but when you do, at least, you leave it all on the court," she said. "We were hustling for every ball, and we knew the rallies were going to keep going and they knew we weren't going to back down. We sure knew they weren't going to, either."
Ross and Walsh Jennings didn't become champions by backing down.
"It's the best thing in the world to have the biggest target on your back because it means you're doing well. It means you're the best," Walsh Jennings said. "But with that comes a lot of stress, and by the end of a tournament my nerves are fried.
"It's a great problem to have, and I want to have that problem until I retire."
That day, she said, is "some years down the road." And many victories away.