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Americans Roll In Olympic Beach Volleyball Debut

July 23, 1996

JONESBORO, Ga. (AP) _ There is no ocean in Jonesboro and, until recently, no beach. But beach volleyball, the ``Baywatch″ sport of the Atlanta Games, came of age here Tuesday in a, like, totally cool Olympic debut.

The American women led off by beating France. They do have beaches in France, but this was volleyball, not topless bathing.

Still, the hardbodies on display are undeniably part of the appeal of this unlikeliest of Olympic sports, which had its origins on California beaches and desperately wants to be taken seriously. Olympic recognition has helped, but the sport hasn’t escaped the lingering suspicion that it was added to the Olympic schedule to increase NBC’s bikini count.

``This is incredible. I was out there in the old days, playing for T-shirts and dinners,″ 36-year-old Linda Hanley said after she helped the U.S. women post a 3-0 record on opening day of the double-elimination event.

The three American men’s teams all had byes Tuesday, when 13,000 flag-waving, cheering, dancing people crowded into Atlanta Beach, a complex built near a small lake in suburban Atlanta.

Unlike the early days of the sport, there were no waves crashing nearby and no one standing near the court grilling burgers and sipping beer. Patriotism was the overriding theme, and never was it more evident than early in the match featuring Holly McPeak and Nancy Reno, the top-rated U.S. team.

With a packed stadium-court crowd of about 9,000 already making plenty of noise, McPeak and Reno sent the decibel level higher by scoring the first five points of their match against France’s Brigitte Lesage and Annabelle Prawerman.

The French, reeling, called a timeout, prompting the fans to rise as one and start a deafening chant of ``U-S-A!″ that lasted until after play had resumed.

``Awesome. It was amazing,″ McPeak said later, shaking her head. ``I got more goose bumps there than I did at the opening ceremonies.″

McPeak and Reno, seeded second in the 18-team women’s bracket, went on to a 15-4 victory.

Winning by an identical score were Americans Gail Castro and Deb Richardson, who played Debora Schoon-Kadjik and Lisette Van de Ven of the Netherlands.

The third U.S. duo, Hanley and Barbra Fontana Harris, used some overpowering serves to pull away to a 15-8 victory over Norway’s Merita Bernsten and Ragni Hestad.

It set up Hanley and Fontana Harris, the No. 4 seeds, for a meeting Wednesday against Brazil’s fifth-seeded Monica Rodrigues and Adriana Samuel. They had to fend off three match points and rally for a 17-15 victory over Italy’s Maria Solazzi and Consuelo Turetta.

``It really doesn’t make any difference,″ Hanley said of the Brazilians’ opening-match struggle. ``That team in particular _ and Brazil in general _ they’re fighters. They never quit.″

The top-seeded women, Brazil’s Sandra Pires and Jackie Silva, were 15-2 winners over Indonesia’s Eta Berta Kaize and Timy Yudhani.

Castro and Richardson also had a relatively easy time, starting slowly before scoring the final 11 points.

``We took a while to get into our rhythm. I was more nervous than I thought,″ Richardson said. ``You can definitely feel it from the crowd. The fan support, it gets you pumped up. You really want to do well for everybody in the stands.″

Castro and Richardson were the only U.S. duo to not play on the stadium court. Their match was at an adjacent court that holds about 3,500 people, and it was held at the same time Hanley and Fontana Harris were playing on the main court.

The noise generated by the pro-U.S. crowds created almost constant roars throughout the complex. Having that much support was new for the Americans, who spend a most of their time on the international circuit.

``By far the largest crowd we’ve ever had cheering for us. Just incredible,″ Fontana Harris said. ``This is perhaps the biggest day for beach volleyball since its inception.″

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