Over the years, it’s fair to say, Brazil’s performance at the Olympics has been far from brilliant. In fact, the biggest haul of gold medals it’s ever received at a single Games is just five – in Athens 12 years ago. More tellingly, on 15 occasions, it failed to take the top slot in any event whatsoever.
This month, though, with the Games being held on their home soil, hopes are high that it can improve on its dismal record to date. Most obviously, the country will be looking for medals in some of their stronger sports, notably football, sailing and open-water swimming. Most of all, however, it’s pinning its hopes for glory on two young women in crop tops and bikini bottoms – a pair known simply as Larissa and Talita.
More formally known as Larissa Franca and Talita Antunes de Rocha, the two are national heroines. Currently considered to be the best female beach volleyball pair in the world, they will be the favourites and number one seeds when their event kicks off on the golden sands of Rio’s Cocacabana Beach.
Success in beach volleyball requires a partnership based on an intuitive knowledge of one another’s game – a unique connection that normally only comes after playing together for a very long time. Larissa and Talita, though, have been team-mates for just two years.
Both had previously tasted success with other partners – Larissa in particular. She enjoyed an eight-year collaboration with Juliana Silva, a beach volleyball legend in her own right. Together, this twosome notched up six world tour titles, two Pan-American Games gold medals, one world championship title and a bronze at the 2012 London Olympics.
It was just after that last Olympics, though, that the pair split up, with Larissa determined to walk away from the sport and start a family. Speaking at the time, she said: “I am a little anxious. I knew this moment would come and it will be tough to go through with it. I will cry, but my tears will be of happiness and gratitude for everything beach volleyball has given me.”
In the end, she spent little more than a year away from the sport before returning. Claiming the lure of competition was just too much for her, she says: ““I play beach volleyball simply because it is my favourite sport. It just works perfectly for me.
“I really love playing – feeling the adrenalin on the court while facing a difficult rival and seeing how many people have come to support me. The feeling you get is just awesome. I can’t really explain how it feels to have so much adrenalin. I believe there’s nothing else that could give me give this kind of adventure.
“Children seek me out, just to ask for an autograph, then they tell me: ‘One day, I just want to be like you.’ I love the feeling of being a hero. It’s inspiring for any athlete.”
She first took to the sport in 2001 while still a teenager, having switched from indoor volleyball. While she had been awarded one of the most prestigious school scholarships to play the indoor version, she knew it was not for her. She says: “I’m really too short for indoor volleyball. I then decided to change to beach volleyball and I’ve been very happy with my decision. I started playing without knowing where I would end up. At first, I was thinking of playing for just two years. Overall, though, it has worked out great for me.”
That is something of an understatement. In the 15 years since she took to the sport, she’s won 57 gold medals on the FIVB (beach volleyball’s international federation) world tour. She’s also claimed victory in more than 1,000 matches and notched up more than 100 tournament wins.
Above and beyond that, she’s won the Brazilian championship five times, been world tour points winner eight times and taken gold in the 2011 world championships in Rome. Last year, she scooped the inaugural world tour grand finals title. Far and away, she’s the most decorated woman in beach volleyball history.
She puts her astonishing success down to determination and an iron will to win, saying: “I’m a perfectionist. I don’t accept mistakes and I work really hard. I dedicate ten hours or more a day to beach volleyball. This sport has a physical, a psychological and a technical aspect. So you really have to look after your body. I also spend many hours a day just thinking about the sport.”
By nature a relaxed and something of a private person, she admits that her personality changes once she starts playing. She says: “When I walk on the court, I’m transformed. The four lines of the court make me a totally different person. Focus is essential. I have to know everything I can, especially what my opponent will do during a match. I have to be inside my opponent’s head.
“That’s what makes me strong and so passionate. It’s also why I sometimes speak in such strong terms to my partner. There are moments during a match when I have to stop and say to myself: ‘Calm down, Larissa, keep calm. Things will work out, be patient. It will improve.’
“On court, I’m a warrior. I never give up. I don’t accept defeat. I hate to lose. I don’t even like to lose the coin toss at the start of the match.”
Given that burning desire to win, many were surprised when she decided to quit the sport in the wake of the London Olympics. Speaking of the end of her partnership with Silva, she says: “It was sad to bring an end to something that had achieved so much. I’m happy to have made a decision that I am certain was right. It won’t change anything about our place in history.”
She made the most of her time away, coming out as gay and marrying her long-time girlfriend, Liliane Maestrini, a fellow Brazilian beach volleyball player. While this move which may have disappointed her legions of male fans, it attracted a heart-warming lack of controversy in Brazil, a country where same-sex unions have been legal for more than a decade.
Speaking of her decision to take time out from volleyball, she says: “The break was good for me. I was in need of some rest time. I took care of myself and followed my dreams and wishes. I spent more time with my family and took care of the things I hadn’t had time for previously, notably my marriage. Now I find I have renewed energy.”
The availability of Talita made her return to the sport all the easier. Talita, an experienced and accomplished player in her own right, had recently parted company with Maria Antonelli, her former partner, and was looking for someone new to team up with.
As fate would have it, Antonelli had left to forge a new partnership with Juliana Silva. It would be understandable, then, if Talita were to feel a measure of karmic satisfaction from an outcome that has seen her outshine her former team-mate. In truth, though, there seems to be little bitterness, with Talita simply saying: “Maria and I had had four years of success. We had more pleasure than sadness. The cycle came to an end, though, and we finished it in a good way.”
Speaking of her new partner, Larissa says: “I hadn’t been thinking of coming back. Then I started to feel the urge, and the possibility of forming a team with Talita came up. We are a great pair and I believe that we have a number of characteristics that make us a champion team.”
The two certainly seem to complement each other extremely well. Last year, the duo made beach volleyball history, when their 61 consecutive victories broke the previous record – a record held by Larissa and Juliana.
In total, they were victorious in seven of the nine FIVB tournaments they competed in. After winning the FIVB World Tour grand finals, Larissa was declared the world’s best player during the organisation’s annual awards. Talita also picked up an award, having been voted best spiker of the ball.
Of their near-instant success, Larissa says: “We had an exceptional year. We always hoped we would form a strong team and compete for titles. In the end, the results came quickly and consistently, showing our planning was right.
“The awards were special to me. The FIVB World Tour is the best of the best playing against each other every week. Beach volleyball, though, is a team sport and I share my awards with Talita. She has been an amazing teammate for me. We won these awards together. While the competition was fierce, when we were on the court, we were truly a force to be reckoned with.”
Now the pair are focusing on the one honour missing from Larissa’s CV – an Olympic gold medal. Admitting that this was one of the prime reasons she decided to make a comeback, she says: “The chance to compete in the Olympic Games in your home country is every athlete’s dream. It’s no different in my case. The force and energy of Brazilian fans is impossible to describe.
“Without a doubt, it would be one of the milestones of my career. Winning an Olympic gold, alongside my family and friends, would be indescribable. I will do everything I can to bring home this medal for my team and for all of Brazil.”
The pair qualified for the Games last September after taking on another strong Brazilian pairing. This saw them beat Agatha Bednarczuk and Barbara Seixas in a marathon three-set game before a packed stadium on the Cocacabana Beach.
The two pairs could well soon meet again – in the Olympic final. Larissa says: “The Brazilian teams at the Olympics will be very strong. In fact, a number of strong teams will be left out, simply because of the limited number of places available.
“Brazil has many good teams, all of which vie for medals in the World Tour. Now we have to think about our team. We have to focus and always give our best. This should ensure that good results continue to come our way.”
Talita, too, is clear about the need to concentrate solely on preparing themselves for the Games. She says: “Since we won in Rio, we have devoted ourselves to training for the Olympics. From late last year, we started to pace ourselves a little. We wanted to be focused on Rio this year. We have had good results, something that shows how much we are on track.”
She is also adamant that the pressure of being the favourites to take gold will only boost their chances. She says: ““It is important. It boosts our confidence. Favourites are confirmed on court – we need to maintain the focus all the time.”
If they can do that, and maintain the outstanding form they showed last season, then it seems only likely that – this time, at least – Brazilian sports fans really will have something to cheer about at the Olympics.