Growing the game

Beach volleyball made its Olympic debut at the 1996 Atlanta Games and has been contested at every Olympics since. Spiking in the sand originally began in Southern California in the 1920s and the Americans have mostly dominated the sport at the Olympics, winning six of the 10 gold medals awarded in its short history. However, the U.S. has not won the most medals overall, as Brazil owns 11. Though the two nations are still considered the preeminent powers in beach volleyball, recent Olympic medalists have included countries not exactly heralded for their beaches — Germany (men’s gold in 2012), Latvia (men’s bronze in 2012) and China (women’s silver and bronze in 2008).

The basics

Beach volleyball is a sport played by two teams of two players each. The ball is played by hitting it with any part of the body, except for the serve, which must be hit with the hand or the arm. The object of the game is for each team to send the ball over the net to ground it on the opponent’s court, and to prevent the ball from being grounded on its own court. Each team has a maximum of three hits. It may take less than three hits, but never more. Rally scoring is used – the team winning a rally scores a point, regardless of who serves. When the serving team wins a rally, it scores a point and continues to serve; when the returning team wins a rally, it scores a point and gains the right to serve. Matches are best two-out-of-three sets.

The gold standard

For many beach volleyball fans in the United States, two names typically come to mind when thinking of Olympic beach volleyball: Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings. Originally just May and Walsh when they linked up for the 2004 Athens Games, the duo finished playing together after three Olympic gold medals and three world titles. With success came popularity, as the two were often some of the biggest stars at the Games. Their reign culminated with a third straight gold medal in London, as May-Treanor retired afterwards to start a family. She and her husband welcomed their first child in June 2014. Walsh Jennings, a mother of three, still plays and has teamed up with London silver medalist April Ross to pursue her fourth straight gold medal in Rio.