RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil – Juliana Felisberta Silva was born in Santos, São Paulo and grew up in Natal, Rio Grande do Norte. She moved to Fortaleza, Ceará, in 2001, at the age of 17, to train and compete in beach volleyball with funding from the state government.
A few months later, then-19-year-old Larissa França, who was born in Espírito Santo and raised in Belém, Pará, also arrived in Ceará.
The two shared a room in a small hotel with a small window and just enough space for a bed and dresser.
Thus began the friendship and successful partnership between the two young women, who are favorites to take home gold at the Olympic Games in London.
The two played a few matches together beginning in 2001 but became official partners in 2004. Since then, they have shared eight years of triumphs and challenges.
“Juliana used to sleep in the bed, joking that she was a queen and queens didn’t sleep on the floor,” recalls Ana Lúcia Lira, 47, a longtime friend of both women. “Larissa didn’t care. She slept on a mattress (on the floor) without any complaints. And I slept on the other mattress.”
When she first arrived in Fortaleza, Silva spent a few months living with the family of another player, Celina Bastos. Lira had been working as a nanny for the Bastos family for 20 years.
When Silva went by herself to live in the little room at the hotel, Lira joined her.
“The kids were all grown up by then, so I figured she would need my help,” Lira says.
Silva and França naturally complement each other – on and off the court.
When they compete, França plays with her heart on her sleeve, giving her all on every shot. She’s a strong defender and passionate player.
Silva is more technical and seems calmer on the court.
“We complement each other,” says Silva, 28, who is 5-feet-10 inches. “One has the technique and the other has an infinite will to win. Plus, we mesh in such a way that we know where the other will be on the court and how we’ll approach the ball, which can make the difference during decisive moments.”
Off the court, they maintain perfect harmony.
“We’ve spent more time with each other – traveling, adjusting to new places – than we have with our families,” says França, 30, who is 5-feet-8. “We have ups and downs and we fight like people do in any lasting relationship, but we’ve only been able to maintain our bond because we have a chemistry on and off the court.”
Silva, a brunette whose father was a bricklayer and mother a seamstress, is the youngest of seven children and the more playful of the duo.
“If I was poor, I never knew it!” she often says.
França, a blonde, is more introverted and likes to go to the mall. The daughter of a truck driver and a seamstress, she has three siblings and a keen eye for business.
França owns an event space in Fortaleza and usually is the one who handles administrative matters for the duo.
Silva and França stopped living together in 2005, after they bought an apartment and a house, respectively, but they still visit each other frequently.
Lira now lives with Silva but still visits França at least once a week. And now she’s hoping that one of them will have a child soon.
“I’ve always worked as a nanny and I love children,” she says. “I’d like to have one here.”
Silva has been in a relationship for three years, but she doesn’t plan to have children until after the 2016 Olympics in Rio.
A gold medal at the Olympics is the only thing missing from the duo’s impressive résumé.
They took home the gold medal at the Pan American Games in Rio de Janeiro (2007) and Guadalajara (2011). The duo also won the World Championships in Rome (2011) and the World Tour in 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009 and 2010.
But the two didn’t compete together at the Beijing Games in 2008, as Silva had to withdraw from the competition because of a knee injury, forcing França to find a different partner, Paula Connelly. The team lost in the quarterfinals.
“The injury I suffered was the best thing that could have happened to me,” Silva says. “There are two ways to learn in life: through love and through pain. In my case, it was through pain. I learned to appreciate life even more – that there’s a time for everything. I learned a little more about my body and how far I can take it.”
Silva says she’s made a complete recovery.
“I’m not going to stop chasing the ball, thinking about what might happen,” she says. “I can say now that I’m a much better athlete.”
Reis Castro, the duo’s coach, says two-time Olympic champions Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh of the United States, and the Chinese duo Xue Chen and Zhang Xi will be Silva and França’s toughest competition in London.
“When Juliana and Larissa are on the court, they’re always seen as favorites,” Castro says.“It’s an inevitable result of everything they’ve accomplished over the years. They’ve worked hard and now their names are associated with victories. But beach volleyball is highly competitive, and there are talented duos in the tournament.”
Lira, who knows Silva and França as well as anyone, said they’ll win gold at the Games of the XXX Olympiad.
“I just know it’s their time to shine,” she says. “They’re going to win that medal!”
In 2005, Silva was elected Queen of the Beach at a beach volleyball event that has been held annually in Rio de Janeiro since 1999. França earned the distinction in 2007 and 2011. As they prepare to compete on the Queen of England’s home turf, the two are hoping they can win gold.
“Champions are made in tough times,” says França, who also overcame difficulties in the past, including recovering from a herniated disc, in order to keep playing. “There’s always pressure, but we’re among the favorites to win. We have a longstanding partnership and know where the other one will be on the court. There are enormous expectations for the Olympics, but we can’t become obsessed with them.”