BARCELONA, SPAIN, May 31, 2008 - With former International Olympic Committee President Juan Antonio Samaranch in attendance for the SWATCH FIVB World Tour women’s finale here Saturday at the Plaça Carles Buïgas, Americans Nicole Branagh and Elaine Youngs completed “a remarkable comeback” to capture the gold medal at the US$350,000 Hyundai Open Barcelona on the steps in front of the National Museum of Art of Catalunya.
Samaranch and FIVB President Dr. Rubén Acosta have been credited with gaining support for Beach Volleyball to be introduced at the Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games. After the 1992 Barcelona Summer Games, the first women’s SWATCH FIVB World Tour was played in Spain at Almeria as a post-Olympic demonstration sport.
With their 21-18 and 21-14 win in 40 minutes over fourth-seeded Talita Antunes and Renata Ribeiro, the second seeded Branagh and Youngs successfully rebounded from an opening day defeat to a team from Cuba to win five-straight elimination matches to reach the semi-finals where the Americans defeated two teams from Brazil.
In addition to becoming only the second team to bounce back from a setback in the second-round of the loser’s bracket to win a SWATCH FIVB World Tour gold medal, Branagh and Youngs shared the $28,000 first-place check along with improving their standing for the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games where the Americans are currently ranked sixth with 4,120 points for their best eight international finishes since may 2007. Branagh also had seven of the top eight serves in the Hyundai Open Barcelona with her best SWATCH service being 82.1 km/h.
With no women’s team ever winning a 32-team, double-elimination FIVB event after losing in the first round, Brazilians Shelda Bede and Adriana Behar accomplished the five-straight contender’s bracket feat at the 1999 SWATCH-FIVB World Championships in Marseille, France. Youngs placed third in the July event with Liz Masakayan, who is now coaching her former partner.
While Branagh was named the SWATCH most outstanding player for the inaugural Hyundai Open Barcelona, Youngs became the oldest women to win an “open” FIVB event. At 38 years, three months and 16 days, Youngs surpassed the previous mark set in July 1998 at a SWATCH FIVB World Tour stop in Portugal by compatriot Linda Hanley (38 years, one month, 25 days).
After losing 17-21, 21-12 and 15-7 to 15th-seeded Milagros Crespo and Imara Esteves Ribalta of Cuba Wednesday, Branagh and Youngs won their last seven matches to net their first SWATCH FIVB World Tour title in their 15th international event together. While Branagh was capturing her first SWATCH title, Youngs was advancing to the top of a FIVB podium for the 12th-time with her fourth different partner.
“Right now I am feeling great,” said Youngs, who captured the bronze medal at the Athens 2004 Olympic Games with Holly McPeak. “I know tomorrow when we travel back to the United States we’ll feel the pain of playing nine matches in four days. This is a great victory for us, especially since these points are very important for qualifying for the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games. The difference today was our service game along with keeping the pressure on the Brazilians through the match. Our goal was to win one point at a time and never let up.”
Youngs’ last SWATCH title came in 2004 with McPeak in Norway as three Americans teams filled the Stavanger podium. Six of Youngs’ FIVB titles were with McPeak, three gold medals with Masakayan and two crowns with Barbra Fontana, who was Hanley’s partner at the 1998 Espinho.
Four of Branagh and Youngs’ wins this week were over teams from Brazil, including a 22-20, 14-21 and 15-13 victory in 62 minutes over top-seeded Juliana Felisberta Silva and Larissa Franca. The Americans are now 3-1 in SWATCH matches against Renata and Talita, who shared the $19,500 second-place prize.
Sunday’s finale was the 72nd-time Brazil and the United States have competed for a SWATCH FIVB World Tour women’s gold medal. The Americans now lead the gold medal series 43-29. While Talita and Renata are 0-2 in title meetings with Americans for the top spot on a FIVB podium, Youngs is 3-4 in SWATCH gold medal matches against teams from the South American country.
In the bronze medal match, Juliana and Larissa won their fourth medal in five SWATCH starts this season by defeating seventh-seeded Vassiliki Arvaniti and Vasso Karadassiou of Greece 21-14 and 21-14 in 36 minutes. FIVB winners in Australia and Japan this season, Juliana and Larissa shared $14,000 for third-place with the Greeks splitting $10,500 for their first “final four” appearance this season
photos Janos Schmidt