Kerri Walsh Jennings
AP

Kerri Walsh Jennings returns after 4 months off sand, motivated by Karch Kiraly

Leave a comment

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.

MORE: Walsh Jennings, Ross forge ahead after notable phone call

Jordan Thompson, U.S. volleyball’s new weapon, took unique route to NCAA history

Jordan Thompson
FIVB
Leave a comment

It was about this time last year that Jordan Thompson first appeared on the radar of U.S. women’s volleyball coach Karch Kiraly. Since, Thompson emerged as the youngest starter, and arguably a star, for the national team.

She goes into what could be her final weekend of college volleyball as one of the most dominant athletes in any sport. And one of the most unique stories in NCAA history.

Thompson plays not for a Big Ten or Pac-12 powerhouse, but for Cincinnati, a school that, before she arrived, never made it past the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

The unranked Bearcats upset second-ranked Pittsburgh in the second round last Saturday. They play Penn State, winner of six of the last 12 NCAA titles, in the Sweet 16 on Friday.

In 33 games this season, Thompson has registered a Division I-leading 768 kills, which is 143 more than the next most prolific attacker. That margin of 143 is the same number that separates No. 2 from No. 31.

Last season, she had 827 kills, which was 240 more than anybody else and a single-season record (by 112 kills) since NCAA match formats shifted from 30-point to 25-point sets in 2008.

She is a contender, if not a favorite, to be AVCA National Player of the Year. All of the previous winners dating to 1985 came from schools that reached at least one Final Four.

On Oct. 4, a UCF player’s face caught the wrong end of a Thompson attack. Cincinnati teammates watching from the bench dropped to the floor in astonishment.

Thompson tallied 50 kills in one match alone on Nov. 3, becoming the first D-I player to do so in 20 years.

That happened on Senior Day. Before that match, Thompson received a plaqued No. 23 jersey and flowers.

She posed for a photo standing with her husband, former Cincinnati offensive lineman Blake Yager, her mother, Mary, whose bribes helped Thompson develop into an attacker, and her father, 1990s Harlem Globetrotter Tyrone Doleman (and brother of Pro Football Hall of Famer Chris Doleman).

Mary has been most instrumental, raising Thompson as a single mom in Minnesota. Thompson, who is 6 feet, 4 inches now, was always tall for her age.

She played youth basketball against older girls and grew frustrated by the physical contact. Kneepads weren’t comfort enough. She decided to give volleyball a try in middle school.

“She was very timid,” Mary said of her daughter, who has since gotten 10 tattoos, including one of a hummingbird. “She would tell me she didn’t want to hurt anyone on the other side of the net. I told her I would give her a dollar for every time she would whack it. And I would give her $10 if she would actually hit someone on the other end of the court.”

It took a while, but Thompson was motivated by her love of horses. The payouts from her mom went toward a saddle and a bridal. A box with horse equipment remains in the family garage back home.

“She was trying to build up her supplies to be able to one day say to me, look, I’ve got a saddle, I’ve got all of my tack, I’ve got stuff to clean the hooves, can we get a horse now?” Mary said. 

After just two years of club volleyball, Thompson received her first Division-I scholarship offer. It came from Syracuse. Thompson was a high school sophomore.

“In the back of my head, I’m thinking, I’m never going to get another offer, so I better take this one,” she said.

Thompson was intent on Syracuse for a year before a coaching change led her to decommit. She wasn’t sure if many schools knew she had reopened her recruiting. A Minnesota club teammate had committed to Cincinnati and suggested Thompson take a visit.

The Bearcats went 3-29 the season before she committed.

“I said, Jordan, you can play D-I at Texas. You can go to Nebraska,” Mary said. “She was like, no, no, I want to play all four years. I actually want to get playing time, mom. She really struggled believing how good she could be.”

The biggest obstacle came junior year. In a preseason training session, Thompson collided with that Minnesota club teammate, Jade Tingelhoff, and tore the UCL in her dominant, right arm. She was in an armpit-to-wrist brace for two months post-Tommy John surgery, including three weeks with her arm locked in place.

She couldn’t brush her hair, had a hard time brushing her teeth and found it difficult showering and getting dressed.

She still went to every Bearcats game and traveled with the team. Cincinnati went from 22-10 her sophomore season to 13-19 that year without her on the court.

“It ended up being OK,” Tingelhoff said. “She came back that next season — I’m not kidding — 10 times as better than she was even the previous year.”

As a redshirt junior, Thompson and her 827 kills helped Cincinnati to a 26-8 record and its first NCAA Tournament win in seven years. She also caught the eye of Kiraly by the end of that 2018 season.

“She was one of the elite players in all of college volleyball,” he said. “Probably the only one who came from a conference other than the ones known for producing the most NCAA champions, like the Big Ten and the Pac-12.”

By last spring break, Thompson had become a favorite of U.S coaches at a camp to help select teams for summer international tournaments.

She had a one-on-one conversation with Kiraly, the only person to own Olympic indoor and beach gold medals. The legend told her she had potential to play at the Pan American Games. Later, he upped the praise to say she was ready for the top-level Nations League, a precursor to Olympic qualifying.

Thompson made her national team debut in May. By August, she came off the bench to help spur a comeback in a crucial Olympic qualifying match. The next day, she was in the starting lineup for the U.S.’ final Olympic qualifier, where the Americans clinched a Tokyo 2020 berth.

“I think a lot people don’t know she is still in college,” two-time U.S. Olympic outside hitter Jordan Larson said then. “She still has one more year left.”

Agents reached out, but Thompson had no intention of giving up her final year of NCAA eligibility. She wanted to make history at Cincinnati. That was secured with the Sweet 16 berth.

With the new year, she will trade the Cincinnati red and black for Team USA colors. She will keep in mind what the U.S. coaching staff told the team during Olympic qualifying and what she called a dream summer.

“My big goal in life was I just wanted to be in the USA gym,” said Thompson, who is working on her master’s in criminal justice. “To hear that we’re all working towards this goal of trying to make this roster, and we are being looked as potential players to make that roster, my jaw dropped. To know that it’s even a remote possibility is mind-blowing.”

VIDEO: Brazil volleyball star faints during courtside interview

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

Tahiti chosen for Olympic surfing competition at 2024 Paris Games

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Paris 2024 Olympic organizers want the surfing competition to be held in Tahiti, an island in French Polynesia that is about 9,800 miles from Paris.

It would break the record for the farthest Olympic medal competition to be held outside the host. In 1956, equestrian events were moved out of Melbourne due to quarantine laws and held five months earlier in Stockholm, some 9,700 miles away.

The Paris 2024 executive board approved the site Thursday — specifically, the village of Teahupo’o — and will propose it to the IOC. It beat out other applicants Biarritz, Lacanau, Les Landes and La Torche, all part of mainland France.

“If, ever, we have two alternatives, and where one alternative gives the athletes of a particular sport more closeness to the heart of the Games and allows them to enjoy the magic and the spirit of the Games better, then in the interest of the athletes, we prefer this solution,” IOC President Thomas Bach said in June when asked about Tahiti’s interest in hosting surfing.

Surfing will debut at the 2020 Tokyo Games but is not on the permanent Olympic program. Surfing was among sports added to the Paris 2024 program in June and could be added for the 2028 Los Angeles Games.

MORE: U.S. athletes qualified for Tokyo Olympics

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!