When Kerri Walsh and Misty May-Treanor fought off an early Chinese lead to win in two sets in the Olympics beach volleyball semifinal Tuesday, it was easy to forget that the pair was recently in danger of splitting up.
But this year, the women known as the best team in beach volleyball history decided to seek help to get out of a "funk" that threatened their chemistry.
Since 2009, Walsh had been attending counseling sessions with sports psychologist Michael Gervais, who has also worked with NBA and NFL stars. May-Treanor joined her teammate in recent weeks for joint sessions with Gervais that the two compared to marriage counseling.
"Absolutely. We're married," Walsh said, according to the St. Louis Dispatch. "I have two amazing partners: my husband, Casey, and Misty. You got to work through it. Sometimes you take things for granted. I've known her for so long, but I don't know everything she's thinking."
Despite winning gold in Athens and Beijing and being undefeated in Olympic play, Walsh and May-Treanor have been dogged by a fear of letting the other down, causing them to play more timidly, Walsh said.
In a "sports marriage," just as in real marriages, things often go off track, said Stanley Teitelbaum, a New York clinical psychologist. Counseling allowed Walsh and May-Treanor to air any frustrations they had with each other in a non-judgmental environment.
"With a third-party professional, it frees them up and gives them the opportunity to express things in the room that may have been going on but they haven't been able to express directly or hadn't been sufficiently in touch with," Teitelbaum said. "When you express those things in a climate that's not critical, good things can happen."
All sports are deeply psychological, but beach volleyball, played by teams of two, is especially so, said Dr. Thomas Schwenk, the dean of the University of Nevada Medical School.
"The single biggest issue is trust," he said. "In that kind of sport where you're vulnerable, just the two of you, you have to have complete trust in your teammate that they're committed and performing to the best of their abilities, and that they trust you in return."
Changes in their lives since the 2008 Olympics in Beijing contributed to the pair's uncertainty about their future on the court together.
Shortly after the Beijing Games, May-Treanor tore her Achilles tendon in a practice dance performance for "Dancing With The Stars." In 2010, Walsh gave birth to her second son. May-Treanor contemplated retirement, and the two separated briefly.
That such developments triggered a slump in the pair's chemistry is not surprising, said Schwenk, whose significant interests include depression and burnout in athletes.
"Can you come back from childbirth? Can you come back from star status? Can I count on you when the time comes?" are some of the questions that likely took up mental space as they prepared for the 2012 Games, Schwenk said.
In an interview with "Good Morning America" shortly before the pair shipped out to London for the 2012 Games, Walsh said they needed to get their "swagger" back.
That confidence, she said, was what helped propel them to their two gold medals despite sometimes coming within a few points of elimination.
The counseling sessions the pair had with Gervais were important, May-Treanor said, according to the Dispatch.
"It's important that we're all on the same page. It's been a process," she said.
If it ever left them, their swagger is certainly back.
With a 22-20, 22-20 victory over China in the semifinal round, they are in contention for yet another gold medal in today's all-American final against U.S. newcomers April Ross and Jennifer Kessey, who came from behind against top-ranked Brazil in Tuesday's other semifinal.
If May-Treanor and Walsh win in this afternoon's final, they will become the first beach volleyball players with the distinction of three consecutive golds.