Every athlete has victories that stand out above the rest. A win after being behind, maybe a huge comeback in the Freeze. A tournament victory against the reigning Champions. Winning the year’s final tournament after guaranteeing it via social media (still one of my favorite sports storylines of 2020, Trevor Crabb).
In many beach players’ careers, victories mean solo match wins. But for someone like Misty May-Treanor, victories mean entire tournaments. I can’t even begin to fathom the number of single games Misty has won. So when I asked her about her favorite wins, she spoke in terms of Gold Medal Matches, World Championships, and AVP Finals.
I was psyched to talk with Misty for a few reasons. Of course, the obvious one is she’s the best to ever play the sport. Even as a blocker, I’ve looked up to Misty since I was an awkwardly tall tween watching the 2004 Olympics. I was looking forward to hearing which of her hundreds of wins were her favorite matches. She’s also just a really terrific person: super down-to-earth, low-key, and humble. One of the winningest athletes in sports history, but you wouldn’t know it from how she talks about her career. No grandiosity or bragging involved; she’s matter-of-fact and charmingly self-deprecating. A fact made very obvious when she told me her favorite match of her career was a loss.
“I’ve had many favorite victories with Kerri [Walsh-Jennings] and Holly [McPeak],” Misty tells me over the phone. “Actually, my first win with Holly was really sweet because she took me under her wing. Our first victory was in Deerfield.
“With Kerri and I, because we had so many memorable wins, I’m going to give you one of the matches that stands out the most – and it’s a loss.”
That’s right. The player who won 112 matches and 19 tournaments in a row (breaking her own previous record of 89 matches and 15 tourneys – NBD), the match she wanted to reminisce on was a devastating loss. Why? Because as a serious volleyball lover and intense competitor, Misty valued the lessons learned more than the W.
“I’m gonna take our World Championship loss against Larissa and Juliana in Italy the year before the  Olympics. They were kind of our nemesis on [the FIVB] Tour. Kerri and I had just joined forces again. Everyone kind of wanted to see how we’re going to do. I had a knee brace on, coming back from an injury. We make it to the finals. Set three – we lost 14-16. But we were up 14-11 at one point.
“I had trouble siding out – I hit the tape, kept hitting the same spot. You know as a coach now, you’re like, ‘Change it up! Something’s not working.’ But I kept going to the same shot. And Larissa ate it up.
I get devastated after losses. But now, looking in hindsight, if we hadn’t have lost that – it’s not that we wouldn’t have been hungry, but I really felt that that loss set the tone for London. We didn’t want to feel that way again. And it taught us, when you’re in a scenario like that, how to step back and earn that one point you need. Not get so locked up in, ‘We have it!’ that you get so anxious and overworked that the wheels start falling off. Keeping your cool.
“Plus, it allowed me to know their defensive scheme. So when we came up against them again, I knew which shots we had instead of just trying to beat the door down going cross-court. That match, because we let it slip away, it helped us more on the mental side than the physical side.”
Their mental game was crucial in preparation for their last run to an Olympics. Kerri and Misty had taken years off as a team and they were just coming back together. The World Championship loss in 2011 was a significant match to lose, but the lessons carried over into the final test of their dominant partnership – a third Olympic Gold Medal.
“Now looking back, instead of saying, ‘Oh, we lost the World Championship.’ Yeah – everyone wants to win that. But it happened for a reason. And the reason was so much better.” Misty and Kerri leveraged that loss into a fire in their bellies, a hunger to finish strong in their last Olympic push. They finished the 2011 FIVB season with four finals appearances and two tournament victories.
But the last match that set up Misty and Kerri for London 2012 was the final tournament before the Games in Gstaad, Switzerland. “Switzerland is the big tournament that everyone wants to win because of the cowbell [trophy].” Misty and Kerri entered the year as the top team in the world, but they’d yet to win a tournament in 2012.
“Kerri and I were working on our rhythm. We hadn’t won on the FIVB all year. But then we won in Switzerland, which was like three weeks before the Olympics began. So for us, that was another mental game. We set a precedent heading into the games. And that always sits in the back of your opponents’ mind – ‘They just won the last tournament.’
“It’s always nice winning the last one before a big event. Kerri and I felt confident as a team. I don’t think the outside saw us medaling; we weren’t the heavy favorites going into London. In our minds, we were. We never wavered on that.”
Seven matches and one more Gold Medal later, the whole world knew they were the best. And that they’d likely remain the best forever. That is unless another team has plans to win three in a row.
Almost equally as impressive as Misty’s skill is her memory. She didn’t get one fact wrong in our lengthy conversation. Misty remembers single points of matches from over two decades ago. Like match point of her first AVP win with Kerri (Elaine Youngs served down the line just out of bounds). “Our first victory in Florida against EY and Holly. Kerri and I were so new. I mean, those are the players you look up to. Those are your idols. You’re not supposed to knock them down! And then Holly being a former teammate. That’s a special victory for us, that very first win on the AVP.
“All our matches had meaning. It’s fun learning. Kerri and I got kicked a lot in our first year. We only won one tournament in Espino, Portugal. Then our game went to a whole new level, and we ended up being the frontrunners. And then the target gets large on your back. So every game is important.”