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American pair just will not wave goodbye

Dain Blanton and Eric Fonoimoana make a surprising run to the gold medal match.

By JOHN ROMANO

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 25, 2000


BONDI BEACH, Australia -- Juan Antonio Samaranch put the gold medal around Maurice Greene's neck after the 100-meter sprint Saturday. He was at the Aquatics Center the night Brooke Bennett won the 800-meter freestyle.

As far as we know, the baron of the International Olympic Committee has yet to show up for beach volleyball.

Unless, of course, that was Juan Antonio disguised Sunday as a rotund man in a blond wig and mask and doing a boogie in the bleachers.

Beach volleyball is the eccentric cousin the rest of the Olympics would like to ignore. It contains no pomp and very unusual circumstances. It has more in common with a minor-league baseball game than a gymnastics crowd.

They do not just do the wave during breaks in beach volleyball games. They do slow-mo waves. They do rapid waves. They do competing waves. They have a goofy guy with a bushman's hat and a microphone leading the crowd through variations of the Macarena.

And there is no Olympic flame anywhere in sight of the stadium. Just a spectacular view of a beach with rolling waves and the softest sand that'll ever slip between your toes.

The volleyball ain't bad, either.

The American duo of Dain Blanton and Eric Fonoimoana are in Tuesday's gold medal match after beating Portugal's Luis Maia and Joao Brenha 15-12 in the semifinals Sunday.

And, true to beach volleyball's unique spirit, they went in kicking and screaming.

Blanton and Fonoimoana led the match almost from the beginning, though they could never quite put their opponents away. Along the way, Blanton and then Fonoimoana had words with Australian referee Peter Paul Hreszczuk concerning some questionable calls about sets.

The Portugese took their first lead at 11-10, prompting the United States to call a timeout. When play was ready to resume, Hreszczuk whistled the Americans for coming back onto the court too slowly and awarded a point to Portugal.

"You watch us play, you can see that we are fighting on every single point the entire day," Blanton said. "And then we lose a point like that? At that stage of the match? Unfortunately, there was a lot of back and forth going on with the referee all day, so it was hard not to be emotional at that point."

In fact, it was good to be emotional at that point.

The match had gone on for 65 minutes with the United States scoring 10 points. In the next five minutes, it ran off five straight points to win.

And the pair did not even thank Hreszczuk for the inspiration.

Instead, after a long embrace with Fonoimoana while rolling in the sand, Blanton went over to the scorer's table and appeared to be shouting at Hreszczuk and other officials. He declined to say what was discussed.

"I don't want to talk about the referee," Blanton said. "I just hope I don't have to see him anymore."

If he does, it will be in the gold medal match. And frankly, the rest of the world has to be surprised to find Blanton and Fonoimoana there.

Though they have played together for three years on the international volleyball federation's beach world tour, they have not won a tournament. Their best finish in 2000 had been third, and they are the ninth seed in the Olympics.

Heck, if not for an injury to Karch Kiraly, they would not even be here.

Blanton and Fonoimoana were trailing Kiraly and Adam Johnson for the final U.S. Olympic spot when Kiraly dislocated his shoulder and had to pull out of the final qualifying tournament.

That is how Blanton and Fonoimoana got to the Olympics. How they reached the final match is anybody's guess.

"We've been together for three years, and we've had our ups and downs. Now, to make the biggest finals in the world, we have some reason to celebrate," Blanton said. "I think we'll realize later just what we've accomplished here. But if we think about it too much now, we'll get ourselves in trouble."

So the plan is to stay relaxed. Never mind that they will be playing against the highly favored Brazilian team of Ricardo Santos and Jose Marco Melo in the final. Never mind that a good portion of the 10,000 fans at the beach volleyball stadium will come bearing flags from Brazil.

After all, it's just another day at the beach.

Kiraly, who won gold medals for indoor volleyball in 1984 and '88 and beach volleyball in '96, was once asked what it would take to make indoor volleyball more appealing to the American public.

It was simple, he said. Get rid of four players on each team, tear off the roof and bring in some sand.

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