The famous—some say infamous—chant rippled loudly around the stadium, straight up the tunnel and through my body:
“Aussie Aussie Aussie! Oi Oi Oi!”.
Ten thousand voices as one. All of a sudden I felt at home, yet also anxious and a little afraid. My body didn’t quite know how to react. There was no precedent for this in my experience. We were beyond being intimidated by the crowd, because we had finally learned how to make them our own, to harness their energy. But this was the Olympic final, and there was a time when our opponents represented everything I feared on the beach volleyball court.
The blindingly bright, golden opening at the end of the tunnel was growing with each step. The smell of the salty sea air was getting stronger. The sand between my toes was becoming warmer. As the adrenalin that I once associated with the fear of losing surged even faster through my veins, I smiled. I felt how I imagine Rocky Balboa felt when he walked out to face that invincible Russian and everything he represented.
As we left the tunnel and entered the sand, we became more convinced than ever that this was our chance to steal the show. Stuff the silver. We were going for gold. “Ladies and gentlemen, please make welcome, from Australia…Natalie Cook and Kerri Pottharst!” The crowd stood and cheered as though we had already won! What they didn’t know was that we felt as though we already had! “Concentration is the ability to think about absolutely nothing when it is absolutely necessary.” Ray Knight. As we completed our warm-ups and sat down to wait for the start, Kerri and I looked into each other’s eyes and clasped hands. I said “This is our opportunity. This is our stadium and this is exactly what we’ve worked so hard for. Let’s enjoy the fight”. We had been through a lot of learning, overcome a lot of barriers and I, in particular, had experienced many personal transformations in order to be here. For that, I was already grateful, regardless of the outcome. Yet, at the same time, I felt as though I was sitting for the final exam. What a tough test it was going to be! And I was determined to enjoy every moment.
We’d faced this pair fifteen times before, and we had won just once. But today we were convinced there was no history. The playing field was completely level. It was a brand new day in some ways. In other ways it was a day we had lived through so vividly so many times in our minds. We faced our opponents off at each end line and ran into the net to shake hands and wish each other luck. Kerri took the ball to serve and the whistle signalled the beginning of the fight of our lives. The game started fast, with a tough, 82 km/h serve by Kerri that split the middle and gave us our first point. A dig in transition gave us a 2–0 lead. Although I was a little nervous, I settled once the leather slapped my forearms as I passed the first ball.
At the first change of ends, we sat down and took in Bondi’s carnival atmosphere. A Mexican wave travelled in slow motion around the arena. It was so dream-like that I had to pinch myself, but a thunderous roar snapped me out of my reverie as we walked back onto the court.
At 4–2, the score seemed to hover forever. Neither team seemed to be showing any sign of weakness, but something was bound to break. Suddenly, Brazil took the lead for the first time, at 6–5, went quickly to 7–5, then shot ahead to 8–5! The momentum was starting to tip in their favour. It seemed a small lapse of concentration on our part but, at this level, a tiny opportunity is all a team needs, and a three-point break in a twelve-point game is considered an unassailable lead. In order to stop the bleeding, we called a time-out.
To be continued!