Twenty years later it remains “arguably the biggest upset in the sport.”
Twenty years ago today — September 26, 2000 — in Sydney, Australia, ninth-seeded Eric Fonoimoana and partner Dain Blanton knocked off third-seeded Brazilians Ze Marco de Melo and Ricardo Santos for the gold medal.
They had been playing for more than an hour and a half in a sideout-scoring match with sets to 12. The Americans won the first 12-11, and were up 11-9, needing one point to win and not go to a third set.
“I felt that someone had to make a big play, because it’s sideout,” Fonoimoana said. “You’re going to have to earn that point.”
Fonoimoana, known as “The Body” for his high level of physical fitness, knew that they would have to play aggressively in order to beat the steady Brazilians, who held a 4-0 head-to-head record against the Americans that year.
Their coach, Greg Vernovage, had spent all night literally cutting VHS tape to make a video that would help them understand Brazil’s hitting tendencies.
Fonoimoana knew that Ze Marco preferred to hit line.
“I wanted to do something different at that point, and I thought that it was an opportunity to seal the line. I knew that Ze Marco wants to hit, especially if he’s in the middle of the court, and I thought, ‘How do I get a little higher?’ and I got up pretty darn high up there off of a swing block.
“It was a spur-of-the-moment decision, and I thought, ‘I guarantee he’s not sneaking line by me. And I felt that somebody needed to make a big play.”
Sure enough, Ze Marco got set in the middle, turned the spike back line, but Fonoimoana was ready, stuffing Brazil straight down.
“I’m almost stunned that there’s no more points to play,” Blanton said, recalling the moment of victory.
“In beach volleyball, there are so many mind games going on, but we were able to win the mental and the physical game that day.
“At first it was shocking, ‘Is it real, is it really over, and then you see the ladies coming out with the trays, and the medals on the trays, and they’re rolling out the red carpet, they’re putting the podium in place. Slowly but surely, it’s sinking in, but it’s not. And then the anthem is being played.
“It’s a moment you think of and dream of your entire life, and the pinnacle and ultimate moment of our sport.
“Now you’re in it, you’re living it, and the coolest part is that you’re representing the entire United States. You’re not just playing for your high school or your college (Blanton won an NCAA national championship in 1992 with Pepperdine).
“You’re playing for something so much bigger than yourself, and I think that’s why we cherish it so much.”
And the significance of the upset?
“You could argue that winning the Olympics, beating Ze Marco and Ricardo, who had beaten us four times previously that year alone, it’s arguably the biggest upset in the sport,” Blanton offered.
“There’s no question that it was a big upset given the magnitude of the situation.”
Since they were seeded ninth, Fonoimoana said the pressure was off.
“It was interesting, we didn’t feel any pressure,” Fonoimoana said. “The only pressure we had was what we put on ourselves as individuals. And not even any pressure as a team, we expect a certain level of play, and it just happened to be at the biggest moment there is.”
To see that moment, it’s at 10 minutes, 32 seconds of this YouTube video.
Blanton has parlayed his AVP and Olympic success into a career as a motivational speaker, broadcaster and now is the head coach of the beach volleyball program at USC, where he was an assistant.
Fonoimoana, also a motivational speaker, has built a successful real estate practice at the Compass agency in Hermosa Beach while coaching at the Elite Beach volleyball club and Mira Costa high school. He also operates his own Dig4Kids foundation, an after-school program committed to provide youth in low-income communities with increased opportunities for academic and athletic achievement.
Interestingly, Fonoimoana and Blanton had decided to break up at the beginning of the 1999 season after lukewarm successes in 1997 and 1998, making only one final in 1997 (Vail) and two in 1998 (Tucson and Chicago).
“We couldn’t get over the hump and we couldn’t win, so we were going to go our separate ways,” Blanton said. “But at the beginning of the ’99 season, the stars aligned to get us together the week before Clearwater, the AVP season opener, and we ended up winning that tournament, our first tournament win together.”
They beat Karch Kiraly and Adam Johnson in the final.
“And that gave us all sorts of confidence,” Blanton said.
“That’s when we started going full-bore to make that 2000 team, and it was an absolute battle all the way until that final qualifying event in Belgium. We had to have a fourth-place finish or better, because Karch and Adam were ahead of us, and we got a third on that very last Olympic qualifying tournament.
“That pressure prepared us for the Olympics.”
And there was more to consider, because they were not the popular choice to go to Sydney.
“Everyone was thinking, Karch has won all these gold medals, he should be the guy going,” Blanton recalled. “We were getting a lot of flak that we were possibly not good enough to go, and that put a chip on our shoulder that pushed us even more.
“We had been tested in the qualifying process. I feel for these teams that make the Olympics a year in advance, because then you’re just training and what-not. We were just going full-bore the whole time, being tested, the pressure situations that whole two years, and it almost came up empty, but we pulled it off. That gave us confidence that we could do anything.”
Not that the Olympics were smooth sailing. For that matter, they might not have made the gold-medal match at all but for an unexpected red card in the semifinals against Brazil’s Joao Brenha and Miguel Maia.
Earlier, they beat fellow Americans and now fellow broadcaster Kevin Wong and Rob Heidger in the third round.
At the time, the FIVB and AVP were engaged in a power struggle, with each side trying to attract American talent. Blanton and Fonoimoana defeated Heidger and Wong easily in a 15-3, 31-minute win.
“We were in a heated rivalry battle because that was a team that decided to play full-time internationally and not support the AVP at the time, and that was looked down upon at the time,” Blanton said. “I think that maybe that team was fifth or sixth in the U.S. at the time, and they got the Olympic spot and were seeded ahead of us.
“That was our most efficient match, we knew exactly what Wong and Heidger were going to do, and we executed. It was a lot of fun, and I think we proved our point there.
“It gave us a ton of confidence going into that semifinal, which was a big part of that journey.”
In the semifinals, a single set to 15, with sideout scoring, it was tied 10-10.
“Then they scored the 11th point, so we called time out,” Blanton said. “The referee then gave us an infamous red-card call that we had taken too much time coming out of the time out, despite never giving us a warning or yellow card. That gave them their 12th point.
“After a few sideouts, I told Eric, ‘We’ve got to end this thing.’ It had gone on too long, and we didn’t want to give the ref a chance to give us another phantom call.
“So I went back and served a ball cross-court for an ace to get to 11-12, another ace down the line for 12-all, then Eric blocked a ball for 13-12 and the switch.
“Then they shot a ball down the line and I dug it and put it away for 14-12, and then I hit an ace down the middle for 15-12.
“It took us about 65 minutes to score 10 points, and then five minutes to finish it.
“People ask us, ‘Did you thank the ref?’ because you don’t know what would have happened, but that call motivated us to play at a much higher level.”
Maybe their highest level.
“That run from 10 to 15, when we were down 10-12, is something that I look back on and that was a pretty special stretch,” Blanton said. “You don’t normally score five in a row, let alone to close out a semifinal match and make it to the gold medal match.”
Blanton lives in Santa Monica with his girlfriend Maeve McCaffrey and son Caid (2). Fonoimoana is a resident of Hermosa Beach with girlfriend Lisa Newman and their four children Tucker (15), Dustin (14), Jake (13) and Estelle (12).
When it comes down to it, partnerships are all about the chemistry, Fonoimoana said.
“We’re very similar. We’re very close to each other. We’ve travelled the world together, and we’ve become like brothers,” Fonoimoana said. “There weren’t many things that we didn’t do together, that’s just the way that it was. We went to the gym, we liked to work out, we liked the same things, it’s the best way to go.
“A relationship has to be give and take. It helps when you compete. Especially when you’re in the trenches, when you have to come together and figure out a way to make it work.”
Twenty years later, both Fonoimoana and Blanton keep their medals locked up in a safe, but bring them out during speaking engagements.
“Hopefully it can inspire others,” Blanton said, “when they get a chance up close and personal to check it out.”