The medal hopes of a previously unbeaten U.S. women's beach volleyball team vanished on Sunday in the most maddening way imaginable.
Sarah Sponcil and Kelly Claes appeared to have won a pivotal replay challenge late in a round of 16 elimination match, only to have the outcome reversed.
With the favored U.S. team trailing 12-11 in the decisive third set, Sponcil hit a deep serve that Canada's Heather Bansley and Brandie Wilkerson opted to let go. A lines judge initially ruled the serve sailed long and awarded the point to Canada.
A TV replay revealed that the ball appeared to have landed just outside the line, though NBC commentator Dain Blanton described it as "the closest play we've ever seen." According to FIVB beach volleyball rules, a ball is "in" if some part of it touches the boundary lines and "out" if it falls on the ground completely outside the boundary lines.
Sponcil and Claes challenged the out call and initially appeared to have won. Then things got weird when the review continued anew.
This time, after a lengthy pause, the serve was ruled out. Here was the explanation Blanton received after the match:
The overturned decision left Canada's Bansley and Wilkerson high-fiving in celebration while Sponcil and Claes angrily approached the referee to protest.
"The ball was out," the referee told Sponcil.
"They're pointing to the wrong ball mark," Sponcil responded. "It wasn't in the middle. It was the wrong ball mark."
When Sponcil continued to protest, the referee told her to "get ready" and then penalized her with a yellow card. Sponcil, still visibly frustrated, then mishit her return of Bansley's serve, resulting in an easy kill for Wilkerson and a 14-11 Canadian lead.
Sponcil and Claes showed character fighting back to win the next two points, but they could not stave off a third match point. Instead of setting Bansley, Wilkerson called her own number to clinch a 22-24, 21-18, 15-13 victory.
The replay challenge was the match's turning point, but the U.S. had chances to close it out before that. Sponcil and Claes led 10-4 in the second set and appeared to be cruising to the quarterfinals before the Canadian duo delivered an impressive turnaround.
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