Carambula & Rossi (ITA)

Four straight top-five finishes without a medal can do nasty things to the psyche of a beach volleyball player. Indeed, such a stretch, from the middle of April to the end of May, in which Adrian Carambula and Enrico Rossi played in four tournaments – three in Cancun, one in Sochi – made the semifinals in three, and returned to Italy with not a single medal to their names, hurt the free-wheeling Italians.

“We are a bit traumatized by these fourth place finishes,” Carambula said, laughing.

But those fourth-place finishes were caused by issues on the court. Not even issues, really. They were caused by phenomenal teams playing phenomenal volleyball. They were knocked out by Qataris Cherif Younousse and Ahmed Tijan, Alison Cerutti and Alvaro Filho, Nick Lucena and Phil Dalhausser, Steven van de Velde and Christiaan Varenhorst. That’s a murderer’s row of opponents; there is no shame in those losses.

“As much as I wanna say we deserve it, we know that it has to be earned by playing our best game against the best in the world,” Carambula said. “We like that challenge.”

Challenges on the court are one thing. They are fixable: finding a block here, an ace there, tweaking an offensive play. Challenges off the court are an entirely different matter.

For the second straight Olympics, Carambula entered as the most thrilling of underdogs. Here was a 6-foot defender, a self-described midget in the volleyball world, with a serve that kisses the sky and a creative, artistic style of play that simply cannot be taught. Here was his partner, Rossi, one of the most athletic and explosive blockers in the game, someone who could match Carambula’s creativity, with the hands needed to run the flowing, constantly moving offense they’ve popularized.

In Tokyo, they were barely given a chance.

They competed against the best teams in the world in the Olympic Games, and they did so without a single coach.

“It was hard to face up to,” Rossi said.

Rossi and Carambula during time-out

Rossi and Carambula during time-out

They took their licks in Tokyo, losing three straight matches in pool, taking a 19th.

“Not the outcome we wanted,” Carambula said. “Way too many off the court issues that made it really hard to bring out our best game.”

They took some time to recover. The standard post-loss grief cycle known to so many beach volleyball players. Rossi rested, healed some nagging injuries. Carambula distanced himself from the game, allowed his mind to relax, unwind, reset.

“We are in a much better place,” he said, “especially mentally at the moment.”

At the moment, they are training in Rome, hosting Ahmed and Cherif, resuming the high-level form to which they're accustomed to playing. At the moment, they are preparing to play the type of volleyball they know they can play, the type that led them to racing up the Olympic ranks and into the Games, the type that we saw in Cancun and Sochi, the type that had them competing for medal after medal.

The type that could also push them over the edge at the World Tour Finals.

“The most beautiful thing of sport is that this gives you always another chance to improve,” Rossi said. “We will try to get that in the World Tour Finals.”