Aussie beach star Natalie Cook in 5th Olympics
When Australian Natalie Cook arrived at the beach volleyball venue for her fifth Olympics, she had to walk past a 25-foot statue of two-time defending gold medalist Kerri Walsh Jennings looming over Horse Guards Parade.
She will see a smaller - but no less imposing - sight on the other side of the net for her first match Saturday: the 6-foot-2 American herself, along with partner, Misty May-Treanor.
So, how does that feel?
''I wish you could print (it),'' Cook said with a laugh on Friday.
Cook has appeared in every Olympics since beach volleyball was added to the games in 1996, winning a bronze medal in Atlanta with Kerri Ann Pottharst before the pair took gold in front of the home crowd in Sydney four years later. She was fourth with Nicole Sanderson in Athens in 2004, before finishing fifth in Beijing with Tasmin Hinchley, her current partner.
''It's a resume to dream of,'' Hinchley said after an hourlong practice at Horse Guards Parade, the telegenic beach volleyball venue built in Buckingham Palace's first yard.
But it's also the end for Cook, who's 37 and talking about starting a family.
''This is my fifth - and final,'' she said. ''I often look back and think, `How the hell did I pull that off?'''
The beach volleyball tournament begins on Saturday with six men's and six women's pool-play matches. It will get started with Beijing bronze medalists Zhang Xi and Xue Chen of China against Russians Anastasia Vasina and Anna Vozakova, with Americans Jake Gibb and Sean Rosenthal playing at night before the featured match: Jennings Walsh and May-Treanor against Cook and Hinchley.
''Obviously, it's a tough start,'' said Cook, noting that she had never beaten them on the pro tour. They have never played in the Olympics.
Working in the Australians' advantage is a full house - Hinchley couldn't even get any more than the two allotted seats for her family - and a boisterous opening-night crowd that could pump up the Australians while loading high expectations on the favored Americans. And, though Walsh Jennings and May-Treanor remain intimidating, seeing them early in the event might be preferable to later.
''Don't let them warm up,'' Cook said. ''If they warm up, they're a pretty formidable force.''
On Friday, the athletes were at the venue for practice and a technical meeting, with briefings on logistics and schedules and a welcome from FIVB President Jizhong Wei. While waiting to head into the tent, Cook exchanged friendly banter with May-Treanor and Walsh Jennings while they helped her strap an ice pack on her elbow.
The Americans offered their support for Cook after her plea for a woman to carry Australia's flag in the opening ceremony created controversy back home. A woman was indeed chosen: Lauren Jackson, who helped the Australians win the silver medal in basketball at the last three Olympics.
Cook is the first Australian woman to appear in five consecutive Olympics, joining about 15 men.
Four years ago, she made an extra effort to enjoy Beijing, not knowing whether she would be able to make it to Olympics No. 5. She missed the entire 2009 season and didn't reunite with Hinchley until the 2011 World Championships, putting them at a disadvantage in their attempt to accumulate points on the FIVB world tour - the most direct path to qualification.
It wasn't until June 24 that she earned a spot in the 2012 Games by winning a second-chance continental cup.
''It's a privilege to make the Olympics, not a right,'' Cook said. ''I'm trying to soak up every bit of it.''
It's an emotion familiar to May-Treanor, who has also said she will retire from international play after London - her fourth Olympics. (She was fifth in Sydney with Holly McPeak.)
Pointing to 21-year-old Sophie van Gestel of the Netherlands, May-Treanor said, ''We're playing against this competition - we started when we were their age.''
''It's great to see the youth and know the sport's going to continue to escalate,'' she said. ''It's neat to see who's going to kind of take that torch and continue.''