When Kerri Walsh and Misty May-Treanor went their separate ways after winning a second straight Olympic beach volleyball gold medal, competitors had reason to hope that they wouldn't have to face the world's most dominant team again in London in 2012.
Now Walsh and May-Treanor are back together on the sand, and they vow to be even stronger than they were when they swept through two Olympics without losing a set.
"We're going to be better, I'm sure of it," Walsh said after the gold medalists began working out together to prepare for the opener of the international tour in Brazil. "Without a doubt, we both are. Individually, for sure. And, collectively, I know we have so much more in us."
Walsh and May-Treanor won gold at the Athens Games in 2004, but after repeating as Olympic champions in Beijing in '08 they both took time away from the sport. Walsh had two babies, and May-Treanor needed about 18 months to recover after tearing her Achilles tendon and calf muscle in 2008 while rehearsing for Dancing with the Stars.
It wasn't until this month that May-Treanor decided she wanted to make a run at London.
"I just needed to step away for a little bit to see what I wanted to do, to see how I felt about it," she said. "It kept eating away. I hit a low point and in my heart I said, 'I need to do this.'
"This is all I've ever known," May-Treanor said. "You never want to live with regret. I'm 33; I still feel that even with the injury I can play at a high level. I feel that I can do this, and that Kerri and I can do this. I didn't want to regret giving up a chance to do something extraordinary."
After discussing it with her husband, Matt Treanor, who is a catcher for the Texas Rangers, May-Treanor then struggled to tell her former partner. Walsh had been preparing for the season with Nicole Branagh, who reached the quarterfinals in Beijing with Elaine Youngs.
"You never want to hurt anybody around you. We both like Nicole; we both respect Nicole; we both think she's an awesome teammate. I wish there were more Nicoles in the world," May-Treanor said. "The timing of it was bad, but I don't know if I would have had the strength to say anything earlier."
Walsh, 32, and May-Treanor, 33, began working out as a team this month, spending just one day practicing together before getting back on the sand against other teams to try to work themselves back into competition shape.
"The experience has never left us," May-Treanor said. "We know what it takes to get there, but at the same time she's had two kids; I've had an injury. It's like we're starting over, but instead of it being like 2001, we know what we need to do."
But, Walsh said, they have a long way to go.
"We want to be great and fantastic right now, but we know it's going to take a while," she said. "We're so new into it. But we're both really hungry."
Walsh said she is "rebuilding" her body since having two boys, Joey and Sundance. Having started playing volleyball as a 10-year-old, she said, her muscles developed asymmetrically, making her stronger on the left side.
Now that she's starting over, she is able to work out more evenly.
"I'm just starting from Square 1. My body's relearning, and as it's relearning I'm teaching it the proper technique," Walsh said. "Everything changes and shifts (with the pregnancies). I've really been focusing on, when I do build my muscles, to do it properly. Hopefully that will make me symmetrical."
And, she thinks, she can be mentally stronger, too.
"I think taking a break reaffirms my love of the game, my love of the lifestyle, and how much I want to put into it," Walsh said. "I have this refreshed love. I have such new inspiration with my boys and my family. I want to do this as a mom, and I want to do this as a woman."
Walsh's husband, Casey Jennings, is also a beach volleyball pro who is hoping to qualify for the London Games. They will travel together, with their sons, to Brasilia for the FIVB opener April 17-23.
"It's kind of the first test run," Walsh said, "for how our lives are going to be for the next couple of years."