Olympic silver medalist Jennifer Kessy will return to beach volleyball next season, after taking this year off due to pregnancy, with new partner Emily Day.
Kessy, 37, lost in the London Olympic final with then-partner April Ross. They were beaten by fellow Americans Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings.
After the Olympics, Ross switched to team with Walsh Jennings in 2013, while Kessy took a break to have her first child. Daughter Aïla was born Aug. 14. May-Treanor retired.
When Kessy initially took her break, she knew she needed to find a new partner before returning, but figured she would play domestic tournaments exclusively in 2015. She considered never competing internationally again and not going for the Rio 2016 Olympics.
Kessy changed her mind while watching the World Series of Beach Volleyball near her home in Long Beach, Calif., in July, one of the top international tournaments.
Walsh Jennings and Ross won in Long Beach, but no other U.S. pair was seeded in the top 10. Walsh Jennings and Ross were the only Americans to make the semifinals of any of the 10 FIVB World Tour Grand Slam events this season.
A nation can qualify a maximum two pairs for the Olympics in 2016. Kessy hasn’t seen another U.S. pair step up to become favorites for that second spot with Walsh Jennings and Ross.
“If there was a team like April and I were, ranked like fourth in the world right now, I’m not sure I would be 100 percent in as I am right now,” Kessy said in a phone interview Monday. “I see the opening and opportunity. It really has lit a fire. I can’t really back down from it.”
So, three of the four U.S. women’s beach volleyball players from London could return for Rio, but none with the same partner.
When Walsh Jennings and May-Treanor beat Kessy and Ross for gold, Walsh Jennings told Ross in a post-match meeting near the net, “Let’s go win gold in Rio,” which proved to be the early makings of their partnership. Kessy didn’t hear Walsh Jennings at the time, but she found out later.
“It’s not my favorite thing that [Walsh Jennings] has ever said,” Kessy said, “but it’s not a knock to me, of course, because I know [Walsh Jennings] very well. For me, I wouldn’t have said that at that moment, but it’s not me. It does motivate me to see her and April in Rio and maybe have a rematch.”
Kessy said she, Ross and Walsh Jennings communicated before Ross and Walsh Jennings began playing together in 2013.
“It was really hard for me, and I didn’t know how [Kessy] was going to take it initially, even though I knew she was going to slow down,” Ross told the Orange County (Calif.) Register last year. “Knowing her as well as I do, she knows this is a business, and she’s the best at not getting emotional about this stuff.”
It was an especially tough year for Kessy, who lost her father due to a heart attack.
Kessy said she and Ross still get along fine off the court. They see each other daily in the same gym.
“On the court it’s going to be quite interesting,” Kessy said. “It never will get bad. It will be interesting because we do know so much about each other that it’ll be fun. It might get competitive, and it might get a little heated every once in a while, especially with Kerri on the other side — her and I have been known to get heated.”
Kessy’s new partner was part of the No. 2-ranked U.S. pair last season.
Day, 27, spent most of the last two years playing with Summer Ross (no relation to April). They decided to end their partnership following their last tournament this season in late September.
“Our style of play on the international level was not working out,” Day said.
Meanwhile, Kessy kept a list of people she considered asking to partner with. She consulted with men’s and women’s players, her mother and husband, a former player.
“Everyone kept coming back to Emily,” Kessy said. “I thought about who I should play with, who would complement my game, who I would be comfortable with. Of course, I would love to play with April again — I would love to clone April — but also have somebody who can bring something different to the game. I’m not looking to be just like I was with April.”
Kessy reached out to Day in the last two to three weeks.
“She knows what it takes to get there [to the Olympics],” Day said, “and I’m looking forward to learning from her and using what I know already, combining with her knowledge to take it to the next level.”
If Kessy makes her second Olympic team in 2016, she will become the oldest U.S. Olympic women’s beach volleyball player ever at 39. The oldest U.S. men’s player was Sinjin Smith, who was also 39 in 1996, the first Olympics to include beach volleyball.
Kessy might not have come back had she and Ross upset May-Treanor and Walsh Jennings for gold in London.
“I know the feeling right after we lost that game, and it wasn’t happy to win the silver,” Kessy said. “I was so upset. I was so devastated.
“I still have that feeling and a little bit of sadness, and I do think about that game. … So, yes, maybe that is part of the reason [I’m coming back].”