To get onto the sand in Athens and Beijing, where they won two Olympic beach volleyball gold medals without ever losing a set, Kerri Walsh and Misty May-Treanor played in tournaments from Thailand to Switzerland, from Berlin to Brazil.
Their path to the 2012 Games in London is turning out to be even more circuitous.
A year and a fortnight before the opening ceremonies, American beach volleyball players are still waiting for the U.S. and international governing bodies to agree on a system to decide who goes to London.
"It's really hard to swallow that it's not set in stone," Walsh said in a telephone interview this spring before she headed out for the international tour opener. "It's a huge problem, for sure. Having uncertainty for something that's so profoundly important adds a whole layer of stress right now and we don't need that."
Beach volleyball made its Olympic debut in Atlanta in 1996, and the two-person American teams were chosen at a trials. For the three games since then, the athletes have been selected based on points they accumulated on the international tour.
After Beijing, though, the International Volleyball Federation gave USA Volleyball the right to control its qualifying process for 2012. It was a change that top U.S. players had wanted when their domestic tour was running, because they wanted to enhance the AVP's stature.
But when the AVP went bankrupt last summer, the trials became another flashpoint in a long-simmering feud between the players and a national governing body they say is disconnected from their needs. Now the top Americans -- including May-Treanor, Walsh, and the men's winners in Beijing, Todd Rogers and Phil Dalhausser -- are pushing USA Volleyball to keep the international points system rather than use something untried so late in the four-year cycle.
"There should be a system in place as soon as that last Olympics was over, or last year, so athletes don't have to worry about what they've been working for for so long," May-Treanor said. "I understand what they're trying to do with the Olympic trials. But if Plan A didn't work, which it didn't, why mess with something that hasn't been broken, that has given us a lot of success. ... In no other sport does that happen."
May-Treanor and Walsh worried this spring that they were entering the traditional qualifying period without knowing how the process would work. Three months later, there is still no official word on how U.S. Olympians will be chosen.
"More than anything, it's too late. We're too far down the road," said Casey Jennings, Walsh's husband and a pro who is also trying to qualify for London. "We've discussed with them that we would try to find out a new style of trials for 2016. It's not perfect right now, but it's a lot better than what they're trying."
A USOC spokesman said the holdup is at the international governing body. A spokesman for the FIVB declined to comment, referring requests to the national governing body. A spokeswoman for USA Volleyball said this week they had nothing new to report, and the organization's beach managing director, Dave Williams, did not respond to requests for comment.
Players who have been briefed on the proposals say one plan is to hold a trials in June. Numerous Olympic contenders -- including all four gold medalists from Beijing -- expressed doubts, questioning how participants would be picked and whether a team at the top of the international rankings would really be left home.
"We don't even know what ball's going to be used," Walsh said. "There's a lot of question marks that make me not confident."
Players also are concerned about being pressured to play in the AVP's successor tour, the Jose Cuervo Pro Beach Volleyball Series, which has yet to hold an event. The tour has three tournaments scheduled this summer, with plans to expand to as many as seven in 2012; one proposal would require athletes to appear in at least two to be eligible for the trials.
The players also worry that a trials could favor teams that haven't been tested against the top foreign competition they would be facing in London.
"We want to win medals. Nobody's trying to be selfish on our end," Jennings said. "Our sport is designed to know how to play against other teams. ... My hope -- and I pray at night -- is that it will be the same way that it was for Beijing."
Most disappointing, Walsh said, is that players are told to consider the games a four-year commitment, but their governing bodies, they say, are putting together a plan at the last minute.
"You're setting yourself up so that when the qualifying starts you're in the best position possible," Walsh said. "For this to be happening in the fourth quarter is really unfortunate."
For now, the top teams are spending all of their time on the international tour. Even if it doesn't help them qualify, it will prepare them for the competition they would face in London.
That's what Walsh and May-Treanor did before Athens and Beijing, and it worked pretty well.
"We want to qualify like we've always qualified," May-Treanor said. "We want to go out there and win every tournament."