Kerri Walsh Jennings rejoined partner April Ross for their first practice of the Olympic year on Jan. 20. It had been a while.
“I had been off the sand the longest I’d ever been off the sand since I started competing in beach volleyball,” said Walsh Jennings, a three-time Olympic champion who began her career with the now-retired Misty May-Treanor in 2001.
Walsh Jennings, a 37-year-old mother of three, had the fifth right shoulder surgery of that career Sept. 10, just before the end of the season. It was necessary after Walsh Jennings dislocated it twice during matches on May 27 and July 10.
Before the surgery, Walsh Jennings and Ross put together an inspired run to the final of the World Series of Beach Volleyball in Long Beach, Calif., the biggest annual tournament on American sand.
Walsh Jennings played that August tournament serving underhand and swinging primarily with her opposite left arm. She said the difference was like shooting a basketball with one’s off-hand.
Her spirit was lifted before the event from a phone call with another beach legend, 1996 Olympic champion Karch Kiraly.
Kiraly also suffered mid-match dislocated shoulders in his career, perhaps most notably in 2004. From 2004 partner Mike Lambert in the book, “Karch Kiraly: A Tribute to Excellence:”
“By far the most amazing thing I’ve ever witnessed on the volleyball court was in 2004 at the Belmar Open in New Jersey. Karch and I were playing Jeff Nygaard and Dain Blanton in the third round of the winner’s bracket. We’re up 20-16 in game one. I served Jeff and ran up to block his line. Karch was sitting in the angle when Jeff put a nice clean line shot over my block to the corner. Off went Karch to lay it out for a diving dig. I turned around having landed from my block to see a diving Karch over-extend his right arm to make the play and BAM, dislocated his shoulder. I clearly remember seeing his wide eyes through his sunglasses and the look on his face as he screamed in pain. The whole stadium court went silent. Time stood still as we all watched him wince in excruciating pain. Finally, someone from the medical staff made it to center to help Karch pop his shoulder back into place. They manage to do so and we help him back to the player’s box. I’m worried for Karch’s health and recovery, and pondering the fact that my season with Karch is over. A five minute medical timeout is called. When the time runs out we are all thinking that we’ll forfeit the match and hurry home to get some medical attention. Karch thinks otherwise. He wants to give it a go. Mike Rangel (coach) and I look at each other in disbelief and protest but Karch insists. We start warming up again and it’s obvious that he’s still in a lot of pain and won’t be able to hit the ball. Whistle blows and Jeff serves the ball long and we win game one 21-17. In game two we’re struggling. They are all over Karch’s shots knowing he can no longer hit the ball. That’s when it happens, Karch tells me to line up in the “eye-formation.” I had only heard of it and now we’re doing it. We’d line up one in front of the other in the middle of the court like a football center and quarterback. Karch would tell me which side he was going to run to and I would break to the other as the opponent served the ball. Half the serves would go to me for easy sideouts and half would go to him where I would try to go over on two or he’d make a crafty shot. The crowd got behind us and we started making some plays. Pretty soon we had the lead and we eventually closed it out in two straight sets. Absolutely amazing! Karch dug so deep, put all his pain away and found a way to win where nobody else could. What a competitor.”
Walsh Jennings, who with Ross beat the reigning World champions from Brazil in that July 10 match where she dislocated the shoulder, said she asked Kiraly for advice on how to finish out the season.
After July 10, Walsh Jennings debated when to undergo season-ending surgery, weighing Olympic qualifying ramifications.
She ultimately decided to play three tournaments with the injured shoulder, attempting to bolster her and Ross’ Olympic qualifying standing, before shutting it down.
“Well the first thing he said was it’s so doable [to keep playing], which I just so appreciated it from the best that’s ever played this game,” Walsh Jennings said. “He won tournaments with a dislocated shoulder, a very unstable shoulder, and that was huge. He just told me to get creative, basically, focus on all the little things like your passing, your ball control, and then just get creative with your shots. Which was really fun for me to hear as well because my game, I’ve always felt like an ABC type player, I want to use my height, I want to beat you with power, and the creative game hasn’t been a part of my game. So it was really fun to tap into that more, and I think it really helped me get out of my head and just kind of take what I was given. It was ugly so much of the time, and it really inspired me, as this season goes on toward Rio, be creative and just enjoy that part of the game. I’m playing like a kid again.
“I will thank him for my whole life for that conversation.”
Kiraly, now the U.S. women’s indoor volleyball team coach, respectfully declined to discuss the Walsh Jennings conversation.
“I don’t feel like sharing the specific words, but I’ve dealt with some shoulder challenges before, and she is pursuing this historic, never-before-done goal of winning four straight Olympic Games in a team sport like beach volleyball,” said Kiraly, a 1984 and 1988 Olympic indoor champion and a 1996 Olympic beach champion. “And I’m cheering her on.”
In Rio, Walsh Jennings can become the second woman to win four straight gold medals in a team sport after basketball player Lisa Leslie. A few U.S. women’s basketball and soccer players could also chase this feat in August. More men have already accomplished it.
“I dealt with shoulder injuries, shoulder dislocations and there were some strategies that I guess you can use when you don’t have a good shoulder,” Kiraly said. “She employed some good ones to put her and her partner, April Ross, in a really good position to qualify for the Olympics.”
Walsh Jennings and Ross plan to begin their competitive season in about a month with an exhibition in Brazil and a FIVB World Tour Grand Slam in Rio de Janeiro.
They are on pace to qualify as one of the possible two U.S. Olympic pairs, should they continue to post decent results. Walsh Jennings’ health will be key, but making that final in Long Beach in August provided a major boost.
Walsh Jennings said when she and Ross practiced together for the first time in four months last week that she could do everything with her right arm except serve. She expected that motion to return quickly and said that she would be fine waiting until late February to start serving if she had to.
The March tournaments in Brazil could provide a glimpse of the Olympic tournaments, not only because of the setting but also because of the competition.
Walsh Jennings and Ross could go up against the other two best teams in the world, Brazilian pairs World champions Agatha and Barbara and World Series of Beach Volleyball champions Larissa and Talita.
Ross said she pictures playing Larissa and Talita in the Olympic final. That pair has won 11 of 16 international events since debuting in July 2014.
“I want to study Larissa and Talita, because I just feel like they’re beatable, and I don’t know why no one’s really unlocked that yet,” said Ross, who read the New York Times bestseller “You Are a Badass” in September.
Larissa and Talita are 2-0 against Walsh Jennings and Ross, but one win came in a one-set exhibition in Brazil last winter (Brazil’s summer), when Walsh Jennings and Ross weren’t in mid-season form. The other came with Walsh Jennings playing with one good arm in the Long Beach final in August.
Walsh Jennings believes Larissa and Talita are “flappable.” Their greatness lies in their steadiness, but she and Ross can be steady at a higher level.
“Everything we that we have, our whole kit and caboodle, we are the best team in the world,” Walsh Jennings said. “Now it’s just up to us to figure out how to dance together. Even when we’re not dancing well together, we’re still capable of winning a gold medal, but we can absolutely dominate once we get that rhythm.”
NBC Olympic research contributed to this report.