Kerri Walsh Jennings
FIVB World Tour

Kerri Walsh Jennings pleased by result after longest break in five years

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Kerri Walsh Jennings returned from her longest competition break since 2013 and, with partner Nicole Branagh, nearly beat the world’s top-ranked team.

Walsh Jennings and Branagh ultimately were eliminated in the round of 16 at the Xiamen Open in China.

“We WILL do better,” was posted on Walsh Jennings’ social media. “We actually had a great showing and learned and battled and improved – sometimes the stats don’t show everything.”

Walsh Jennings and Branagh, a pair of 39-year-old moms, played together for the first time since July 22, when Walsh Jennings’ five-times surgically repaired right shoulder popped out mid-match.

Walsh Jennings, eyeing her sixth and final Olympics in 2020, underwent a sixth shoulder surgery and an ankle surgery and did not return to training on the beach until March (her longest break between hitting a ball on sand since switching from indoor following the 2000 Olympics).

The duo won their opening Xiamen match in three sets last week, then lost a three-setter to the world’s No. 1 team in group play. Canadians Sarah Pavan and Melissa Humana-Paredes prevailed 21-15, 22-24, 18-16 en route to the tournament title.

After Walsh Jennings and Branagh swept American qualifiers Kelley Larsen and Emily Stockman in the first elimination round, they squandered a one-set lead in the round of 16. Australians Mariafe Artacho and Taliqua Clancy eliminated them 19-21, 21-16, 20-18.

Walsh Jennings said before flying to Xiamen that she and Branagh would next play on the FIVB World Tour at the Itapema Open in Brazil in mid-May. In four FIVB World Tour events since partnering last year, they were eliminated in qualifying once, bounced in the round of 16 twice and forfeited a bronze-medal match due to that shoulder dislocation.

Early season partner changes defined the U.S. women’s landscape. In Xiamen, one of those new teams, Kelly Claes and Brittany Hochevar, reached the final, losing to the Canadians.

It marked the first final four appearance on the senior FIVB World Tour for the 22-year-old Claes, an NCAA champion at USC with former partner Sara Hughes, and for the 36-year-old Hochevar, the older sister of former Kansas City Royals pitcher Luke Hochevar.

MORE: Walsh Jennings documents comeback from surgeries

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Kerri Walsh Jennings, after her longest break, eyes last Olympic run

Kerri Walsh Jennings
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Kerri Walsh Jennings cried.

In early March, she shed tears after jumping from the sand and slapping a ball in practice for the first time in more than six months, ending the longest break between hits in a career that’s included three Olympic gold medals and three childbirths.

“Since then, it’s just been back to basics,” Walsh Jennings, who has had longer breaks between tournaments, said last week. “It’s gnarly, man, this job of ours. You know, when you want something so bad and you believe, but there are just unknowns.”

Walsh Jennings and Nicole Branagh, who partnered last year, return to competition at an FIVB World Tour event in Xiamen, China, next week. Branagh has two children of her own. Both women are 39 years old.

They last played together in a tournament on July 22. That’s when Walsh Jennings dislocated her five-times surgically repaired right shoulder. They were 14-all in the third set. Walsh Jennings lunged into the sand for a dig, and it popped out.

She needed a sixth right shoulder surgery. It would end her season.

“I don’t have arthritis in my shoulder,” she said. “[My doctor was] like, your shoulder’s in remarkably good condition. But he also told me that when he was in surgery for my sixth one, his assistant in there was like, that doesn’t look like a shoulder anymore.”

Walsh Jennings tacked on another surgery. This is where the unknown comes in. Her right ankle was bothersome since before the Rio Olympics and exacerbated in 2017. She likened it to trying to walk in quicksand.

“I blew out my ankle 30 days before my first Olympics,” as an indoor player in 2000, Walsh Jennings said, noting that she walked in a boot in the Opening Ceremony in Sydney, before moving to the more forgiving beach sand. “Fast forward 20 years, after not addressing that significant injury, I had major issues.”

Walsh Jennings, usually towering at the net at 6 feet, 3 inches, was held up by crutches for two weeks after surgery. She spent at least another week or two wheeling around on a scooter.

She returned to the Southern California sand for practice with Branagh on March 8.

“I’m at a frustrating transitional discomfort, getting the capability of my body, but I know it will lead to better things,” she said. “I have to work through all this newness and connect the dots, because I feel a bit disconnected.”

Walsh Jennings and Branagh rekindle their partnership again (they also partnered briefly in 2010 during Misty May-Treanor‘s break). They plan to play the two remaining five-star FIVB events this season (the sport’s “majors”), plus the majority of the eight remaining four-star events.

Walsh Jennings is also starting her own beach volleyball series called p1440 (inspired by the number of minutes in one day). The schedule of eight tournaments for the 2018-19 season should be announced later this month.

Their goal is to become the top American team by the end of the season. And to go to Tokyo, when they will be older than every previous Olympic beach volleyball player.

Walsh Jennings is firm in two commitments, that she and Branagh will not break up their partnership before then and that they will be her final Games.

“No doubt, as an athlete for sure,” she said. “I will support for the rest of my days.”

Every other notable U.S. woman changed partners since Walsh Jennings’ injury.

Her Olympic bronze-medal partner, April Ross, is now with Alix KlinemanSara Hughes, a promising 23-year-old courted by Walsh Jennings last year, split from USC teammate Kelly Claes. Hughes paired with Summer Ross. Claes is entered in Xiamen with Brittany Hochevar.

Lauren Fendrick and April Ross earned silver at worlds last year, but after Ross went to Klineman, Fendrick is now reunited with her 2016 Olympic teammate, Brooke Sweat, in next month’s Huntington Beach Open.

Walsh Jennings and Branagh are now the longest-running partnership among the top U.S. teams. They intend to keep it that way.

“We’re committed. We’re partners,” Walsh Jennings said. “All that stuff [the other teams changing] is fun to think about, but it really is not impactful toward us at all. The focus is still with us, and that’s how it should be.”

Walsh Jennings wouldn’t mind one more milestone, but it’s in the distance. She has 133 tournament wins combining domestic and international events, according to BVBInfo.com. Karch Kiraly holds the U.S. record of 148 wins.

“For a while, that was the focus,” Walsh Jennings said of Kiraly, who was passed by Brazilian legend Emanuel (who retired with 151 wins, according to the International Volleyball Hall of Fame). “Then I got hurt and was like, I’m just happy to play.”

Walsh Jennings won 11 times in 2014 and eight times in 2016 but has zero since August 2016. A victory next week in China won’t necessarily mean finishing first.

“It has to be a stepping stone,” Walsh Jennings said. “I’m not anywhere near where I need to be or where I will be to compete for a gold medal.”

MORE: Top U.S. men’s team wins season’s first beach volleyball major

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The beach volleyball player who turned down Kerri Walsh Jennings

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VIENNA — A fan holding a large beer gestured to Sara Hughes with his free hand as he watched the world beach volleyball championships.

“That’s her,” the fan was overheard saying. “She’s the one who turned down Kerri Walsh Jennings.”

Word has gotten out that Hughes had the opportunity to partner with Walsh Jennings, a three-time Olympic champion, but instead chose to continue with collegiate partner Kelly Claes.

Claes and Hughes met as teenagers at a beach volleyball camp. Hughes, who had played since age 8, approached Claes, who was new to the sand, about a partnership.

“The chemistry was there just like that,” Claes said, snapping her fingers.

When it came time to pick a college, Claes initially committed to Long Beach State for indoor volleyball. But Hughes convinced her to instead play beach volleyball at USC.

They won two national championships as a pair at USC, where Claes, a redhead, and Hughes, a blonde, were nicknamed “Cardinal and Gold” after the school’s official colors. They graduated in May, with Hughes delivering the student-athlete graduation speech (VIDEO).

They describe themselves as “goofballs,” and often turned USC practices into dance parties by blasting their music at full volume over the loudspeakers.

“There are a million funny stories about these two dancing queens,” USC coach Anna Collier said. “I think the humor that they share together helps keep their relationship both on and off the court very solid.”

During their senior season, Hughes was contacted several times by Walsh Jennings, who split with Olympic bronze medal teammate April Ross in April. Walsh Jennings even flew to Alabama to watch Hughes compete at the NCAA championships, and told ESPN.com “all I wanted to do was play with [Hughes].”

But Hughes was not ready to respond to Walsh Jennings.

“I was honest and told her I couldn’t give her an answer right in the middle of the season with my team,” Hughes said.

Hughes was open with Claes about her conversations with Walsh Jennings.

“It’s really cool that my partner got asked by Kerri Walsh Jennings, and she decided to stay with me,” Claes said. “That just shows how much Sara believes in us.”

Walsh Jennings ultimately partnered with Nicole Branagh, but is sidelined after dislocating her five-times surgically repaired right shoulder in a match in July.

It has been a whirlwind couple of months for Claes and Hughes. Immediately after the NCAA Championships, they flew to Rio for an international tournament. Their best international result in their first full season on the FIVB World Tour was a quarterfinal in Porec, Croatia, a month ago.

They are now the top-ranked U.S. team as worlds get under way in the Austrian capital (broadcast schedule here).

“It’s a dream come true to be here,” Claes said. “We thought we would be watching this at home.”

They are enjoying life as professionals. In Vienna, they took a break from training to practice line dancing, and they plan on visiting the Prater, a public park believed to be home to the oldest amusement park in the world.

But they are all business on the sand.

“We want to show everyone that we are a force to be reckoned with,” Hughes said. “We aren’t these college girls that came out to just to have fun and play. We are here to win and be the best team.”

Partner changes are common in beach volleyball. Of the four teams that represented the U.S. at the Rio Olympics, just one is still playing together.

Even their collegiate coach believes they could benefit from a break.

“I think in some ways, after having played together for this many years, that Sara and Kelly might be nearing a ceiling in terms of their growth as a pair,” Collier said. “I think continued growth is important, and if they were to take some time apart, that when they come back together, they would have a new ceiling to reach for.”

Beijing Olympic champion Phil Dalhausser was in a similar position early in his career. In 2005, he turned down 2000 Olympic champion Dain Blanton to continue playing with childhood friend Nick Lucena. The next year, when Dalhausser was approached by another veteran in Todd Rogers, he put his emotions aside and split with Lucena. Dalhausser and Lucena reunited in 2015 and made the Rio Olympic quarterfinals.

If asked, Dalhausser would have advised Hughes to partner with Walsh Jennings and Claes to partner with Ross.

“I try to tell young players to think of themselves as a business,” Dalhausser said. “Sara would have learned so much from Kerri, and Kelly would have learned so much from April, and they would have made money right off the bat.”

But Claes, 21, and Hughes, 22, insist that they will stay together through the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

“I believe in this [partnership] 100 percent,” said Claes, who wears a “Tokyo 2020” necklace that she has not removed in two years. “I believe we can make it to Tokyo. I believe we can take gold. I want to do all that, and I want to go through this process with [Hughes] because I love her and I know we’ve got what it takes.”

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MORE: World Beach Volleyball Championships broadcast schedule