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Sports

'Beach nation' Germany digs for volleyball gold

Beer and bratwurst - those are unmistakably German. But Olympic beach volleyball? It may sound like a stretch, but Germany are knocking on the door of their first gold medal in the sport.

While Germany's beaches on the North and Baltic Seas are popular tourist destinations in the summer, the strands of Rügen and Sylt don't call to mind the Beach Boys or a day of hanging ten in the surf.

Nor are they known as beach volleyball hotspots to be counted among pilgrimages of the sport's history like Manhattan Beach, California or Bondi Beach, Australia, where beach volleyball legends such as American Karch Kiraly and Australian Natalie Cook cut their teeth.

But despite the lack of history of a beach culture in Germany, the men's beach volleyball team is guaranteed silver or gold at the London Olympics. Julius Brink and Jonas Reckermann, long a strong duo on the international beach volleyball circuit, will find themselves on the other side of the net in the final from a strong tandem from Brazil - another traditional beach volleyball powerhouse.

Brink and Reckermann's appearance in the final is far from a fluke, though. In 2009, their first season together, they won the world championship and set an International Volleyball Federation (FIVB) record with a 25-match win streak. They've made the podium in nearly two-thirds of the tournaments they've played in since 2009, with the exception of this season as Reckermann battled back from a shoulder injury.

Christoph Dieckmann, a former teammate of Brink's who competed with him in the 2008 Olympics, told DW that it's no surprise that Germany is in contention for the gold medal.

"Maybe even for the last eight or ten years, Germany - in the men's [competition] - has been quite strong," he said. "Quite close behind the US and Brazil. It's really not a big surprise that a German team can be in the semifinal and play for a medal."

A European sport

The Germans aren't alone among European countries to catch the beach volleyball bug, either. The bronze medal match will be contested between a team from the Netherlands and a team from Latvia. Both countries do have beaches, but are far from the sunny paradises generally associated with the sport. And, not all Europeans actually train on the beach. Brink and Reckermann train, for the most part, on man-made beach facilities in land-locked Cologne.

Dieckmann said the learning curve of the European teams has finally caught up with the Americans and Brazilians, who have a long history of players who discovered the game as children while playing on real beaches in a climate better suited to the sport.

"I think this has been a development over the last 10 or 15 years," Dieckmann told DW. "Ten years ago, we had players who were starting with indoor and then first started with beach volleyball in the beginning of their twenties. Now, it's a generation that started [with beach] at 15."

The semifinals may be dominated by the sport's young guns, but to win gold, Brink and Reckermann will have to beat one of beach volleyball's old guards: Brazilian legend Emanuel, who is playing in his fifth Olympics.

Emanuel's career dates back to the early 1990s, and he's taken part in every Olympic beach volleyball tournament since the sport's Olympic debut in Atlanta in 1996. He won gold on his third try in Athens, and followed that up with a bronze medal in Beijing. Both those medals were won with Ricardo, his long-time teammate until the two parted ways in 2010.

That year, the 39-year-old Emanuel began playing with his London Olympic partner, Alison, who is 13 years younger.

"I think the key for Julius and Jonas will be to serve strong, like they always do," Dieckmann said, adding that a mixture of float and jump serves is one of the German team's strong suits.

Even if Brink and Reckermann don't pull off the upset and have to settle for silver, it will be the best finish of either gender in the Olympic beach volleyball competition.

A win, though, would be truly special. Knocking off Emanuel to win the Olympic tournament could cast Germany's beaches in a new, golden light.