RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) – NBA stars came out to cheer for her. The crowd at the Copacabana beach volleyball venue sang “Happy Birthday.”
And Kerri Walsh Jennings earned a spot in the Olympic semifinals.
All in all, a pretty good first 40 minutes as a 38-year-old.
“It’s a unique experience, and I loved it,” the three-time gold medalist said after she and April Ross beat Australia 21-14, 21-16 to move two wins from her fourth Olympic title.
The Americans will play Brazil’s Agatha and Barbara – the defending world champions – on Tuesday, with the winner advancing to the gold medal match. The other women’s semifinal match will feature Germany and the top-seeded Brazilian team of Larissa and Talita.
Both sessions were in front of a packed arena, and NBA stars Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, DeAndre Jordan and Jimmy Butler showed up for the midnight match that featured their fellow Americans.
The U.S. basketball players tried to get a wave going and started a “U-S-A!” chant when they were shown on the venue video board. They also squabbled with fans behind them – it’s hard to see past a 6-foot-11 NBA forward – but engaged in some playful banter with Australia fans across the sand.
Ross said she has enjoyed the way athletes from different sports meet and root for each other.
“That’s one of the biggest things I love about the Olympics,” she said.
The Americans’ victory was the second runaway of the night session; Agatha and Barbara advanced with a 23-21, 21-16 victory over Russia.
But the other Brazilian team needed three sets and 70 minutes – the longest of the Olympics so far – to get past Switzerland in the afternoon.
The 21-23, 27-25, 15-13 victory included 27 ties and 11 lead changes. There were 15 ties and five lead changes alone in the epic 29-minute second set, keeping the fans in the 12,000-seat beachside arena on their feet long after the sun set over the Rio de Janeiro mountains.
“The crowd was the third player,” Larissa said. “Only the athletes who have played at an Olympic Games know how it is like. What matters today is that we stayed together, between us and the crowd with us, cheering at every point and still cheering now.”
Switzerland’s Joana Heidrich sat on the bench long afterward, her head covered with a towel while her body shook with sobbing. Talking to reporters with reddened eyes, she said: “Now it’s really bad, but I think in a few hours I’ll be really happy with our results and our performances.”
Teammate Nadine Zumkehr also said it would take her a while to appreciate what the experience.
But she’s going to try.
“It was the best game I ever had the chance to play,” she said. “The audience was crazy. I really want to keep that deep in my heart for the rest of my life, because it’s unforgettable.”
Larissa and Talita are each three-time Olympians, but they’re teamed up at the Rio Games for the first time. Larissa won bronze in London – losing to Ross and Jennifer Kessy in the semifinals – but Talita has yet to reach an Olympic podium.
They kept their chances alive after losing the first set and falling behind 19-17 in the second – putting the Swiss two points from a spot in the semifinals.
“Too bad they showed their very best at the right moments,” Zumkehr said. “They deserved to win, but we gave them a really, really hard win.”
Laura Ludwig and Kira Walkenhorst beat Canada 21-14, 21-14 earlier in their quest for Germany’s first Olympic medal in women’s beach volleyball. The German men won gold in London.
“The boys did it last time. I was in the stadium,” said Ludwig, who is at the Olympics for the third time, finishing ninth and fifth with Sara Niedrig. “If they can do it, I want to work hard for that as well.”
Canada sent the maximum of four beach volleyball teams to Rio – one of just four countries to hit the quota. But Heather Bansley and Sarah Pavan were their last hope for a medal.
“A lot of athletes strive to represent their country in the Olympic Games. We got that opportunity,” Pavan said. “The program doesn’t have the history that the American and Brazilian programs have. The fact that we had four teams here speaks loudly, and we’re only going to get better.”