Kerri Walsh Jennings

Kerri Walsh Jennings on her Super Bowl commercial, toughest loss and brain games

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Three-time Olympic beach volleyball champion Kerri Walsh Jennings prepared in the last week to begin practicing with partner April Ross for the new season, the year-before-the-Olympics season.

Walsh Jennings, 36, and Ross, 32, performed well in their first full year together in 2014, winning four of 10 FIVB World Tour events that they entered.

Walsh Jennings returned to playing following the retirement of longtime partner, Misty May-Treanor, after the London Olympics, and the birth of her third child, Scout, on April 6, 2013.

In 2014, only one pair bettered Walsh Jennings and Ross’ record. Brazilians Larissa and Talita won four of their six FIVB World Tour events after teaming up midway through the year.

Walsh Jennings and Ross haven’t played Larissa and Talita. The two teams are the early favorites with the World Championships in the Netherlands on the horizon this summer.

Walsh Jennings hopes she’s physically and mentally better prepared this season. She described last year as “playing catch-up,” frustrated by a pelvic stress fracture, a knee injury and other aches and pains.

She also continued her brain training, working with sports psychologist Mike Gervais. She plays games on her iPad while wearing a headset at home, flying an airplane or shooting free throws with her brain.

“It reads your brain frequencies, alpha waves,” Walsh Jennings said of the Versus program, which boasts several athlete users, including MLB outfielder Carlos Quentin, tennis player Mike Bryan and retired swimmer Eric Shanteau. “If I’m focusing too much, [the plane] is going to crash. If I’m too relaxed, it’s going to crash.”

OlympicTalk covered more topics in a phone interview with Walsh Jennings while she was on an Asics photo shoot.

OlympicTalk: In 2004, before your first Olympics with May-Treanor, you said, “We’re a bitch to play.” How close are you to being able to say that with Ross?

Walsh Jennings: We’re definitely getting there. There were some tournaments last year where we were people’s worst nightmares. That’s what we’re working towards. At the beginning of last season, (our coach) Marcio (Sicoli) would say, outlast. Weather the storm. Then he would say, be the storm. Create havoc for the other team. … I can’t say we’re a bitch to play right now.

OlympicTalk: Who is the best team in the world right now?

Walsh Jennings: April and I. Larissa and Talita have been amazing, have a great record.

OlympicTalk: You and April played with keys looped through necklaces last season labeled “breathe” and “dream.” Will you keep playing with them?

Walsh Jennings: Yeah. My husband dipped mine in gold (for my birthday). It’s in my jewelry closet. It will be on the road with us, without a doubt.

I always need breath. When I’m breathing, I’m always doing good. Especially in tough times. Last year, I gave April a dream. I said, April, when you think of us playing and competing and getting to Rio, don’t put any boundaries on us.

(Fellow player) Brittany Hochevar introduced me to (The) Giving Keys. When you meet somebody who means what your key means more than you, you give it to them. So we’re going to graduate from the keys that we have. My husband (fellow player Casey Jennings) has “gratitude.” His partner has “fearless.”

OlympicTalk: You were in a Super Bowl commercial with May-Treanor in 2004. What do you remember about it?

Walsh Jennings: That it was freezing. We shot it first in Malibu with a huge snow machine, surrounded with foam. We were all bloody after the shoot (as the video shows briefly). The next day, we went to Bear Mountain (a California ski resort) a couple hours away, super early in the morning, and it was freezing, literally, like 30 degrees. We wore parkas, ear muffs and hand warmers. We stripped down, played a couple rallies, they got what they wanted, and we dressed back up. Actually, when I was warming my hands up, my gloves caught fire.

OlympicTalk: You’re undefeated in Olympic beach volleyball, but what’s the toughest loss you’ve taken in any sport at any level?

Walsh Jennings: Senior year at Stanford, national championship game. The worst game of my career. We had an amazing season and made it into the finals. All of us fell apart. I certainly did. We played Penn State and got manhandled (15-2, 15-10, 15-7).

(Editor’s addition: “Obviously we were missing all night,” Walsh told the San Jose Mercury News in 1999. “We’ve played like this in the past, but not this bad, and always we snapped back. I just kept waiting for us to snap back tonight, and we didn’t.”)

Another really tough loss was losing the 2011 World Championships, up by two points, had match point and we lost to Larissa and Juliana.

(Editor’s addition: Walsh Jennings said in 2012 that loss “is under my skin,” while May-Treanor remembered watching the Brazilians’ celebratory screams, group hugs and autographing video cameras like tennis players, calling it “over the top.”)

OlympicTalk: After switching from indoor to beach following the Sydney Olympics, have you ever considered playing indoor again?

Walsh Jennings: There were times early in my beach career where I didn’t know if I could do it. But once I determined I was up for the challenge, I never thought about going back (to indoor).

I left indoor with a broken heart. I was so happy to find something that I loved. If I loved it (indoor), I think I would be great at it. I think I probably would have retired before now though. I’ve had four shoulder surgeries.

(Editor’s addition: Walsh Jennings’ “broken heart” from indoor was the result of a nightmare Sydney 2000 Olympic experience. She was notified of a failed drug test before her first match and had to sit out until being able to prove that it was a false positive. Walsh Jennings returned to play, but the U.S. lost in the bronze-medal match. Walsh Jennings believes her parents still have the letter she received informing her of the positive test.)

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U.S. beats Japan in Olympic baseball qualifier, may still need help

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The U.S. handed Japan its first loss in the Premier12 global Olympic baseball qualifier, at the Tokyo Dome no less, but now the Americans must root for the host nation.

The Americans, with a roster mostly of Double-A and Triple-A players, won 4-3 over a Japanese team that includes some of its domestic league’s biggest stars like two-time Central League MVP Yoshihiro Maru and veteran shortstop Hayato Sakamoto.

Outfielder Jo Adell, MLB Pipeline’s top-ranked prospect on the U.S. team, starred by reaching base four times with a home run.

Japan is already qualified for baseball’s Olympic return as the host nation.

The U.S., meanwhile, has a sense of urgency at Premier12, the first of a possible three tournaments in which it could clinch an Olympic spot.

At Premier12, the top-ranked nation from North and South America qualifies for the Olympics. The tournament is at the super-round stage of the final six teams, and two are from the Americas: the U.S. and Mexico.

The top four nations after each has played five games advance to gold- and bronze-medal games.

Mexico already beat the U.S. and ran its super-round record to 3-0 on Tuesday, clinching a spot in the medal round.

The U.S. moved to 1-2 in the super round on Tuesday and must at least get into the same medal-round game as Mexico to keep its hope of finishing as the top team from the Americas.

Japan could help, since it plays Mexico on Wednesday. If Mexico beats Japan, the Mexicans clinch a spot in the gold-medal game, which would put more pressure on the U.S. to win its last two games (vs. Australia on Wednesday and Chinese Taipei on Friday). Even then, South Korea would get into the gold-medal game if it wins out.

If the U.S. is not the top team from the Americas at Premier12, it can still earn an Olympic berth in March. But then it faces trying to come up with a roster at the end of MLB’s spring training rather than during the offseason. MLB teams may be less inclined to release minor leaguers.

“That’ll be a delicate dance,” U.S. general manager Eric Campbell said before Premier12.

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College gymnast dies after practice accident

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HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — An accomplished gymnast at Southern Connecticut State University has died following a serious spinal cord injury suffered in a training accident.

Melanie Coleman, 20, of Milford, Connecticut, was training Friday at New Era Gymnastics in Hamden when she was injured, said her mother, Susan Coleman.

She was taken to Yale-New Haven Hospital and died Sunday.

Coleman was a former All State gymnast at Jonathan Law High School in Milford and was captain of the school’s gymnastics team. She was named a Women’s Collegiate Gymnastics Association Scholastic All-American this year.

Her former club coach, Tom Alberti, said she attained a level 10, the highest level in the USA Junior Olympics Program.

She was a junior studying nursing, following in the footsteps of her two older sisters, her mother said.

“She’s from a very large, loving family; there’s seven of us, we were the Coleman seven,” Susan Coleman said. “We spent every day together for the past 20 years.”

She volunteered at the gym where her accident occurred.

Her coaches and professors described her as a special young woman who excelled in both the classroom and gym, college President Joe Berolino said in a written statement.

“Our deepest sympathies are extended to her family and friends on this tragic loss,” he said.

People the family has met by traveling to gymnastics events around the country are giving support that is “holding us up,” Coleman’s mother said.

She described her children, which also include two sons older than Melanie, as “inseparable.”

“We’re going to leave an empty space in our photos for her” from now on, Susan Coleman said.