Outside magazine, August 1996
Until April, the olympic debut of women's beach volleyball seemed fairly easy to handicap: A few top international teams, notably Sandra Pires and Jackie Silva from Brazil and Kerri Potharst and Nathalie Cook from Australia, would compete with the second and third U.S. teams to see whether anyone could derail the pair that had dominated both the U.S. and international tours last year. But then Nancy Reno told partner Holly McPeak to take a hike--at least briefly--and all bets were off. "It's absolutely incredible," says fellow Olympian Sinjin Smith. "It's more of a soap opera than the men's tour." Which, as we'll see, is quite an accomplishment.
This wasn't the first time Reno had bumped McPeak. Last year, between their 10th and 11th straight victories, Reno dissolved the partnership. After two tournaments apart, the 5-foot-11 Reno decided to reunite her powerful spike with 5-foot-6 McPeak's peerless defense, and they went on to clinch an automatic Olympic berth--which will force them to grit their teeth and play together one last time on the beach in Atlanta.
"We have major differences in our opinions on life," McPeak explains. "Winning isn't that important to her, and it's very important to me." Reno describes the decision as a simple matter of chemistry--or lack thereof. "I guess it seems pretty peculiar," she says. "But we were at a crossroads. You need to have a good connection with your partner, and when that connection fades, it gets a little scary." The question, of course, is what effect playing apart in the months before the Olympics will have on the once-unbeatable duo. Most observers, maintaining that McPeak and Reno are still a lock for the gold, say the answer is none. Reno concurs. "I wouldn't have done it," she says, "if I thought that anything was at risk regarding the Olympics."
No teams are racked with such internal dissension on the men's side. The antipathy, instead, is directed mostly at former golden boy Sinjin Smith. Smith, 39, who hasn't won a tournament on American soil since early 1993, teamed with relative nobody Carl Henkel last year on the international circuit and took advantage of much-scorned Olympic qualifying rules to win an automatic berth. Which left beach legend Karch Kiraly, partner Kent Steffes, and the rest of the American elite to scrap it out for the remaining two spots at a single June tournament in Baltimore. "That team," Kiraly says, openly sharing his scorn for the Smith-Henkel pairing, "is incapable of winning the gold medal."
Squabbles aside, Kiraly and Steffes (barring some unforeseen calamity in the trials) are overwhelming favorites to add another gold to the two that Kiraly won as star of the U.S. indoor teams in '84 and '88. That leaves the Brazilian pairs of Franco Neto and Roberto Da Costa Lopes and Emanuel Rego and Jose Ze Marco to battle it out with the final American qualifiers for the silver and bronze.