Dressed to keep warm ... Natalie Cook dives for the ball Photo: AP
There are some who think bikini-clad women throwing themselves around a super-sized sandpit is an absurd pursuit to find at an Olympic Games to begin with. But when Big Ben is ticking towards midnight in the near distance, and the weather more suited to hot chocolate and a blanky, beach volleyball can seem positively bizarre.
Natalie Cook and Tamsin Hinchley went to work at 11pm on Saturday, a time when publicans around the capital are calling on punters to finish their drinks and "do your talkin' while you're walkin"'. At least they came prepared.
It was difficult to tell if the playful jeers that greeted the Australians as they entered the arena was down to the strong American presence in the stands, or because they were wearing black leggings and their green and gold swim tops had been slipped on not over bare flesh but white skin-suits. More clothing than flesh is as unusual as the Horse Guard's Parade venue.
Ritual ... Australia's Natalie Cook, right, hugs teammate Tamsin Hinchley after winning a point. Photo: AP
Cook has seen and done pretty much everything in a beach volleyball career that has taken her to five Olympics, and includes a famous home win with Kerri Pottharst in 2000. She agreed this was her zaniest experience yet.
"It was cold," she said, which spoke to both the temperature and the feeling at missing a warming chance to claim the early scalp of two-time Olympic champions Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh, who won a see-sawing contest 21-18, 21-19.
"You don't want to be thinking about your body temperature, you've gotta make sure you're comfortable. I was comfortable in what I wore out there, but if I'd been in a bikini you wouldn't have seen any good volleyball."
The temperature was 13 degrees at the start of the match and Cook thought it dropped further; her bare feet went numb, and what skin was exposed was goose-bumped. Hinchley conceded that "most places are cold at 11pm - we play in Norway and I live in Melbourne", but she wasn't looking for excuses.
"We knew we'd come here and the crowd would wake us up," she said. "This experience, you can't feel tired. You can't feel anything else but inspired, it's awesome."
The pair's habit of sharing a brief hug after each winning point doubled as another means of keeping warm, and both noted the part of a young and raucous Saturday night crowd, which might have kept the Camerons at nearby Downing Street awake, and had a caffeinating effect on the volleyballers too.
Cook thought their impressive performance has made the Americans nervous, and the Australians certainly had their chances, leading 13-9 in the second set, then 16-14. A Hinchley fault at 18-18 had portents of doom, but Cook crafted another winner to square it again. The very last was the point of the match, ended with a May-Treanor smash.
"It's disappointing, we were so close and we had opportunities," Hinchley said. "But it's actually a really strong start."
They have matches on Monday and Wednesday against Austrian and Czech pairings in which to redeem themselves, in 10pm timeslots that will be as awkward as their opener. Cook rued several attempts at a Saturday afternoon nap that were foiled by the athletes' village hubbub, and with an hour's bus trip back from the venue they were in for a disruptive night.
The experience will help them going forward, but that won't make their next late night in long johns feel any more like beach volleyball as they know it.