Misty May-Treanor is busying herself in the way most retired athletes turned mothers of three might: She’s redecorating, making the switch from Halloween to Christmas; unpacking boxes and settling into a new house; teaching her children that, no, they do not need to have a toy every time they leave the house.
And making a music video.
Ah, yes, there is that. When May-Treanor appeared on Amazon Prime as a new — and wonderful — voice on the AVP’s livestream, one of her interviewees was Sarah Sponcil, a 24-year-old currently ranked in the top 10 in the world who was raised on a diet of May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings on the TV every four years, winning one gold after the next.
Sponcil, whose game is not-so-coincidentally quite similar to May-Treanor’s — all grit and hustle and just keep that ball off the dang sand — was predictably giddy, meeting her idol.
Would May-Treanor want to join her and Kelly Claes in their next whimsical music video?
Of course she was in. She was in because this is exactly who May-Treanor has always been: An athlete of unprecedented talent and success, yes, but never once too big for anyone, or anything.
Hers is a legacy that goes beyond the three straight gold medals, the claim of greatest defender to ever play beach volleyball, the 5-foot-9 wonder who, alongside Walsh Jennings, once won 112 straight matches and 19 consecutive tournaments.
Follow sports long enough, and you’ll know that those types of accomplishments mean little when compared to the human element. When put next to the fact that, after a rare loss, May-Treanor wouldn’t escape to the player’s tent, wouldn’t storm home, wouldn’t ignore the requests for pictures and autographs.
She’d rinse off and head straight for the crowd.
Was that Misty May-Treanor, sitting not in the VIP section, but with the rest of the public?
Indeed, it was.
“I always tried to focus on being a good person and a good role model and a hard worker,” May-Treanor said on SANDCAST: Beach volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter. “Be yourself but have fun with the sport, have fun with the people, interact. I used to sit in the crowd. People would ask ‘Did you sit in the crowd?’ ‘Yeah!’
“I’d sit and talk to people and hang out. I didn’t separate myself. I feel like the athletes separate themselves from the general public and if you want your brand to build you have to immerse yourself. You have to make everybody feel the same way.”
But how? How can you win 112 tournaments, six straight AVP Team of the Year awards, and be named the world’s best offensive and defensive player a combined six times, and not make a single enemy, just one rivalry with a little bad blood?
It seems impossible, in this day and age where so much is polarized, where there must be a good and evil, a north and south, a light and dark. Yet May-Treanor remained not necessarily above it, just away from it. She understood the bigger picture of it all, that her volleyball career was her career and it was important, but that it is also just a blip in the grand scheme of life.
“You lose a game? It’s a game!” May-Treanor said. “I’m walking away with all my limbs, I’m walking away with clothes, I have my shoes, I have a hot meal. Some people aren’t as fortunate. Win or lose, it’s still the same thing. Hopefully when I win, the joy shows, and somebody watching on TV it can allow them to escape and I can help bring them life. At the same time, if you lose, it’s a game. I can’t explain it any more. There’s a want and a need. Do I want to win? Yeah. Do I need to win? No, because I can still go home.
“To me, volleyball was an important part of my life and career, but it’s so small in the scheme of life. If you put all your eggs in one basket and don’t enjoy what’s around you, you’d have nothing right now. If you just enjoy what you’re doing every time you wake up and try to make it the best day, that’s all you can really ask for. Seeing the colors instead of the blur has been the main point.
“I don’t want to say that’s why I did so well. Kerri and I, we balanced each other out. You have to deal with what life gives you. Somebody is going to win and somebody is going to lose. That doesn’t mean you’re any worse than they are. It’s a game. That’s what makes it fun. At the end of the day, as an athlete, I just didn’t want to get outworked. I didn’t want to not put in the time and have it backfire. That’s something I can control. There’s a lot of things you can’t control, this is something you can.”
That’s what she misses most about playing: Not the competition, but the work, the practice, the daily routine of getting better. Five days a week, she’d get out on the sand, then twice more in the afternoons with her father, Butch. Thrice more she’d lift — 10 workouts per week, from February-October.
That’s where her medals were won, away from the spotlight. But her legacy was, and continues to be, forged by how incredibly human she is, how she treats everyone around her the exact same, how she was never too cool to sit in the crowd at an AVP, how she’ll always be ready to take a photo, or make a music video, with whomever asks.
“I feel like we paved the way, and there were certainly players before us who paved the way, and it was our job to continue to carry it,” she said. “Now it’s up to the players to take it and carry it. We were just two pieces of the puzzle. Everybody’s had a piece.”