Home-sand advantage: Brazil looms large for U.S. on the beach

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Kerri Walsh Jennings beat the Chinese in Beijing, winning one of her three Olympic beach volleyball gold medals in 2008 in front of a crowd rooting hard for the hometown opponents.

That doesn’t come close to what she can expect when the 2016 tournament begins on Saturday at Rio de Janeiro’s Copacabana Beach.

“The fact that we’re in one of the Meccas of beach volleyball — beach volleyball’s second to football there — that’s nuts. It’s going to be awesome,” Walsh Jennings said recently as she prepared to attend her fifth Olympic Games. “The whole tournament’s going to be intense.”

A five-time Olympian with three gold medals, Walsh Jennings is rarely an underdog when she steps on the sand. But with a new partner, the remnants of a shoulder injury and an advancing age — she’s 37 — Walsh Jennings could be facing her toughest challenge yet.

Two Brazilian pairs enter the tournament as the top two seeds, including Agatha and Barbara, who are the defending world champions. The women on Brazil’s other team, Larissa and Talita, have won Olympic medals, though not together.

“I want to beat the best. I want to be in the gold medal match playing against the best,” said Walsh Jennings, who is now teamed with April Ross after Misty May-Treanor retired. “I don’t care what country they’re from. But yeah, the dream is to play the best. The past couple of years Brazil has certainly been the best, but I’m prepared mentally to play anybody.”

Beach volleyball is a lifestyle in Brazil, and Copacabana Beach has been called the sport’s spiritual home.

Outside the competition venue, locals play before dipping into the ocean to cool off. A few blocks from the temporary stadium, the International Volleyball Federation cut the ribbon on a “Volleyball House” — a renovated school that will be used during the Olympics as a meeting place and then turned back over to the school when the games are over.

On Friday, as organizers prepared for the start of the competition, fans were lining up for tickets outside the venue.

So when the matches begin Saturday, the venue is expected to be filled with locals who know and love the sport — and want to see the hometown players win.

“That does make it exciting, to have the crowd for the team you’re playing,” Ross said during one of the tournaments leading to the Olympics. “It makes you feel like the bad guy a little bit. But that’s fun. I think I look forward to that.”

Not everyone thinks the crowd will work in the Brazilians’ favor, though.

Lauren Fendrick, who partners with Brooke Sweat on the other U.S. team, wondered whether the expectations to win at home would be too much for the Brazilians.

“It’s going to be a lot of pressure on everybody,” she said. “But it’s an opportunity to show what you’ve been working toward all season, all career.”