LONDON - Had they wished, Kerri Walsh Jennings and Misty May-Treanor could have opted to wear full bodysuits under their bikinis in Tuesday's beach volleyball semifinal. The International Volleyball Federation chose to alter its uniform code this year as a concession to the London weather, which is as far from southern California as it gets.
The American pair stuck with the beachwear on a day when the sport of sun and sand became the sport of ... well, just sand. And it didn't cool them off a bit. Under a heavy slate-gray sky at Horse Guards Parade -- certainly the most unique venue ever to host Olympic beach volleyball -- the two-time Olympic gold medalists won a hard-fought match against China's Zhang Xi and Xue Chen to reach Wednesday's finals.
These Summer Games will be the last for the tandem of Walsh Jennings, 33, and May-Treanor, 35, the grande dames of American beach volleyball. They are making their swan song in a place that actually has a swan. It floated serenely on a pond in St. James's Park as a horde of bundled-up Britons marched past, heading toward a little slice of California plopped in the middle of a parade ground that dates to 1745.
Under normal circumstances, Horse Guards Parade is used for the yearly Trooping of the Colour ceremony, which takes place on the Queen's official birthday. The Olympics, of course, are not normal. For this occasion, 5,000 tons of sand were dumped on the grounds bordered by historic government houses and one residence -- 10 Downing Street, home to Prime Minister David Cameron.
The prime minister's back garden is just behind the grandstand, prompting all kinds of jokes about whether the party atmosphere might be disrupting official government business. The business certainly wasn't getting in the way of the party, which ensured beach volleyball would retain its reputation as the Olympic sport for the club crowd.
"Our sport is as it should be," said Walsh Jennings, whose team will play fellow Americans Jen Kessy and April Ross for the gold medal Wednesday. "It's exciting, it's wholesome, but it's also sexy. It deserves a stage as spectacular as this venue.
"We've played in front of the Eiffel Tower, which was really special. But this venue trumps it."
Beach volleyball joined the Olympic program at the 1996 Atlanta Games and has been a popular ticket ever since. Britons have taken to it warmly, despite a climate that runs to the contrary.
It's known as the sport of beer and bikinis, which has made it wildly popular in some cultures (think Brazil) and anathema in others (think Muslim countries). In modifying its uniform code for women -- which used to offer two choices, a one-piece swimsuit or a two-piece -- the International Volleyball Federation also has begun allowing women to wear shorts and tops with sleeves. That, it hopes, will open up the sport to women whose religious or cultural dress codes would prohibit them from participating.
Tuesday's matches were a buttoned-up affair for most. Walsh Jennings and May-Treanor played in bikinis in a stadium filled with people wrapped in fleece tops, jackets and scarves. It began raining during the late matches, when it felt much colder than 60 degrees. Kessy and Ross wore long-sleeved tops, while their Brazilian opponents Larissa and Juliana opted for the bodysuits.
The stadium offered views of more historic institutions, too, with Big Ben towering just down Parliament Street and the Banqueting House -- where King Charles I was beheaded in 1649 -- across the road. Every time the sand was raked, the stadium announcers paid tribute to another British icon, playing the Benny Hill theme.
With its pulsating soundtrack, constant action on the sand and youthful, high-energy vibe, even a chill that caused people to wrap themselves in their flags for warmth couldn't spoil the mood. The closest thing to a buzzkill came when the crowd did the wave, only to see it die repeatedly when it reached the section where Olympic officials sat in their blue blazers and ties. That prompted a hearty round of boos every time.
Walsh Jennings was sentimental after the U.S.-China match. She and May-Treanor have played together for 10 years and won three world championships, and they are extraordinarily close. After taking a break following the Beijing Olympics -- Walsh Jennings to have two children, May-Treanor to recover from an injury -- they reunited in 2011 for one last Summer Games.
"It's an emotional thing,'' said Walsh Jennings, who expects to continue playing while May-Treanor plans to retire. "We have one more match together. It heightens everything. I'm determined to go out on top, because that's what we deserve."
Expect them to be wearing their bikinis. It may be soggy, it may be cold, but it's an endless summer at Olympic beach volleyball -- even in Britain.