And the appeal of beach volleyball is...? "A lot of really healthy, attractive athletes in skimpy outfits," says Karch Kiraly, three-time Olympic volleyball gold medalist. "There's definitely a sexy side to the game." But the training is way, way more than tan deep. The top competitors "play high above the net in the frontcourt like NBA stars and dive around the backcourt like world-class gymnasts," says Kiraly. With the sport expected to be one of the most watched at the Athens Olympics, we served up a few questions to the four two-person teams who'll represent the U.S.

Biggest misconception

"Is that we're just these hot chicks in bikinis," says Elaine Youngs. "Or that we're weekend warriors," says Kerri Walsh. "At 8 a.m., whether it's cold or raining, I'm at the beach. This is how I make my living, competing against world-class athletes who wanna kick my butt."

"It's not like old-school volleyball, with people showing up in their vans and they've got a 12-pack in their hand," says Dax Holdren. "A lot of the guys put in six, eight hours a day training between the beach and the gym. Now there's corporate sponsors, there's a lot of money involved and you have your athletes training hard." Still, "once the event is over, you'll definitely see a lot of the players turning up at the parties afterwards."

Bikini watch

"When you're diving for a ball, you don't want to have to worry about your suit going somewhere it shouldn't be," says Holly McPeak. "So I have my suits custom-made, contoured to my body."

"Board shorts are a very good look for the men," says Walsh. "I would rather not see all these boys in Speedos."

SPF

The sun is "an occupational hazard," says McPeak, who has had two small, precancerous spots removed from her chest. When not competing, she, like many players, limits beach time. Holdren swipes his toddlers' SPF 50. "People always ask me if I need to wear sunscreen since I'm an African-American," says Dain Blanton. "But I peel and get skin damage just as much."

In Athens the men will have added sunscreen: the shirts they'll be required to wear (as they do at other international competitions).

Net gain

Though most pros start by competing in six-player indoor volleyball—the only NCAA-sanctioned kind—many later switch to sand, which is easier on the body. But it's not always a smooth shift. "Indoors, if you have a deficiency in any of your skills, there's a way around it. Say if you can't pass, then you won't be a passer," says Jeff Nygaard. "Someone else will. On the beach, if you can't do something, you're gonna get punished for it.

You can't be a top beach volleyball player if...

"You're mentally weak," says Stein Metzger.

"You don't like to work," says May.

"You don't believe in yourself," says Youngs. "Or if you're drinking beers every night."

"You're 5'5"," says Holdren.

Best pickup lines

"I had a girl come up to me and say, 'You look sexier every year,' " says Blanton. "You just kind of laugh it off."

"Whether I'm hit on or not, I'm usually 100 percent clueless," claims Nygaard. "My fiancée will say, 'That girl was totally hitting on you.' And I'll be like, 'Who?' "

"In South Africa there was a girl that had been drinking a bit," says Metzger. "She told Dax she wanted to 'unmarry' him."

Shout Out to Serena Williams

"Serena did a Nike commercial where they had her playing beach volleyball, and she had a pretty mean serve," says Walsh. "So if she can deal with wearing a bikini and playing in sand getting dirty..."

Going for the gold
After the Games, two beach players, Nygaard and May, plan to get married—but not to each other. (Nygaard expects to tie the knot with Renee Schindler, an environmental scientist; May plans to wed Matt Treanor, a catcher in the Florida Marlins organization.) Metzger also sees rings in his future, but a different kind. "More Olympics," says Metzger, who'd like to win a trip to Beijing in 2008. "It's a really great game, and you can't beat it as a job."

Pam Lambert. Len Hochberg in Los Angeles

  • Contributors:
  • Len Hochberg.