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Rio 2016: A historic win in a hostile environment

Laura Ludwig and Kira Walkenhorst had to contend not only with their opponents but also a hostile crowd at the Copacabana. They overcame both to become the first European women to win a medal in beach volleyball.

Suddenly tears well up into her eyes as Laura Ludwig stands in a hallway of the beach volleyball arena in Rio.

“We worked really hard over the past four years. We had some lows, but we always fought our way back. And that we are now at the top, is just amazing,” she says. It’s an emotional moment – at 1:35 on Thursday morning at the Copacabana.

Laura Ludwig and teammate Kira Walkenhorst have just become the first European women’s team to win any Olympic medal in beach volleyball – but to make things even better, this one is gold. It all seems like a movie, which Lira Walkenhorst still can’t believe she is part of. “It’s incredible and doesn’t seem real,” she says.

Helped by a psychologist

When Laura Ludwig and Kira Walkenhorst enter the arena before the final, they are applauded, a moment that brought goose bumps, Ludwig would say afterwards. But that’s where the politeness ends. Every German serve is accompanied by jeers. However, Ludwig and Walkenhorst were well prepared for the atmosphere at the Copacabana. Prior to the final they consulted a psychologist to discuss, “how to deal with such extreme situations. It was so loud that we could not hear ourselves speak,” is how Ludwig later described the noise level.

Brasilien Rio Olympische Spiele Volleyball Finale A close first set was followed by a second set that was dominated by the Germans

The action on the sand further fuels emotions in the stands. Brazil and Germany engage in a thrilling battle. Agatha Bednarczuk and Barbara Seixas rescue almost impossible balls and their varied plays at the net cause problems for the Germans, who until now had played an almost flawless tournament.

But Ludwig and Walkenhorst are quick to respond with sound positional play, scoring some quick points. The lead changes hands several times. With the score at 13-12 for Brazil, the hosts make three consecutive errors, allowing Ludwig and Walkenhorst to take a two-point lead. After Walkenhorst produces a “monster block,” as it is known here, the stadium goes quiet. The Germans fail to convert the first set ball, but they take advantage of the next one, with Laura Ludwig beating the Brazilians with well-placed ball to take the first set 21-18.

The Germans’ victory in the first set changes the psychology of the match. While it seems to unsettle the Brazilians, Ludwig and Walkenhorst get off to a flying start in the second set, going up 6-1. Cheered on by a small number of German fans, who suddenly seem to be louder than they had been in the first set, Ludwig and Walkenhorst defend their lead. Bednarczuk and Seixas become increasingly desperate in their attempts to ward off the impending defeat. With the Brazilians down 14-8, the DJ on the edge of the court does his best to get the home crowd going again. And for a time, it seems to work. Their serves improve and they cut the deficit to three points at 15-12.

 Rio 2016 Olympia Finale Beach Volleyball Ludwig and Walkenhorst fought for every ball – and the gold medal was their reward

Shock-induced paralysis

However, Ludwig and Walkenhorst refuse to let up, again stepping up the pressure on their opponents. Point by point they work their way to match point. Their first attempt hits the net. Then it is Brazil’s serve: Barbara Seixas run, jumps and strikes the ball, which flies over the net – and out. Laura Ludwig and Kira Walkenhorst have won the gold medal! But for a moment they just stand there as if they have been mesmerized.

“It took a bit to sink in,” Kira Walkenhorst would explain later. The 30-year-old is the first to break out of their collective shock-induced paralysis and embraces her teammate. While Ludwig repeatedly fights back tears, their opponents are gracious in defeat.

“They deserved to win, they were simply better,” says Bednarczuk, whose disappointment is written all over her face. Such a clear defeat in what is one of the most popular sports in this country, is simply too much for the Brazilian soul to take.

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