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

Noah Lyles, Michael Norman, green teens at Olympic Trials, now stars

Noah Lyles, Michael Norman
Getty Images
Leave a comment

Noah Lyles remembers all of it. Michael Norman is a little hazy on the details.

Even if they compete in different sprints (as they are at this week’s USATF Outdoor Championships), Lyles and Norman will always be linked by the 2016 Olympic Trials 200m final.

Both 18-year-olds. Both racing in high school singlets. Neither was expected to contend for the U.S. Olympic team at the start of the 10-day meet. But each won his 200m semifinal at Hayward Field on the University of Oregon campus two years ago.

The next day, the top three men in the 200m final would make the U.S. Olympic team. Lyles and Norman conversed in the call room before the race.

“Talking about how we were just doing this last year,” Lyles said, referencing his 200m win over Norman in the 2015 U.S. Junior Championships, also at Hayward. “I can’t believe we’re here, high schoolers, trying to bring a whole new generation.”

They entered the stadium.

“I remember walking down the track,” Lyles continued. “I can’t remember which race was going on, but I remember seeing Galen Rupp there, so it had to be the 5000m [it was, and perhaps the greatest race of the meet]. I remember everybody going wild for the distance race. All the people slamming on the front of the stands. Just starting to get hyped.”

Norman settled in lane six. Lyles in lane four. The starter’s gun fired.

“I remember running at the end,” Lyles said. “I had no idea what place I was in. I just saw LaShawn [Merritt] and Justin [Gatlin, a pair of Olympic champions] in front of me. That’s all that I saw, so I was really hoping I got third.”

Lyles didn’t see Ameer Webb in lane seven. Webb got third in 20.00 behind Gatlin and Merritt. Lyles was fourth in 20.09 (a national high school record). Norman was fifth in 20.14 (personal best).

Lyles and Norman just missed becoming the youngest U.S. man to make an Olympic track and field team in 32 years. Both left Eugene satisfied, though.

“That would be the only opportunity that both me and Noah Lyles will be able to go into the Olympic Trials with zero expectations and zero pressure,” Norman said this week.

Lyles and Norman are already U.S. Championships headliners at the midpoint of this Olympic cycle. Part of that is due to the absences of Gatlin, Merritt and Christian Coleman. But also what Lyles and Norman have done since those Olympic Trials.

USATF Outdoors: TV Schedule | Entries | Women’s Preview | Men’s Preview

Lyles is a co-favorite in Friday’s 100m, a complementary event for a man who signed a reported eight-year contract with Adidas shortly after the Olympic Trials.

The 5-foot-10, 160-pound Lyles is the son of Seton Hall track and field athletes. His first Olympic memory is watching Usain Bolt‘s record-breaking performances at the 2008 Beijing Games. He ran in R2-D2 socks on May 4, is a sneaker artist, dancer and Lego lover and apparently has “ICON” tattooed on his side.

Since Olympic Trials, Lyles is undefeated in outdoor 200m races. He broke 20 seconds in May 2017 but suffered a hamstring tear during that race and withdrew during the U.S. Championships the next month. He watched the August world championships from his Florida home, then beat the surprise world champion Ramil Guliyev at the Diamond League final three weeks later.

This year, Lyles set personal bests in the 100m (9.93, .02 off the fastest in the world this year) and 200m (19.69, tied for fastest in the world this year) and ran the fastest indoor 300m of all time.

Norman is expected to win Sunday’s 200m in his first meet since announcing he would turn professional after the NCAA Championships. Norman is forgoing his final two years at the University of Southern California.

The 6-foot-2, 175-pound Norman also has former college runners as parents. His dad went to Ball State, then transferred to a junior college before joining the Navy. His mom said she was once the fastest Japanese middle school 100m runner of all time. Norman has no evidence, but he has seen pictures.

Like Lyles, Norman’s first Olympic memory was Bolt in 2008. He races in a headband after being inspired by 2015 World 100m bronze medalist Trayvon Bromell. Norman has “22” in his social media handles because it shares a keyboard piece with the @ symbol.

Norman was also slowed by injuries in that post-Olympic Trials season as he became primarily a 400m runner at USC.

Shin splints. A stress reaction in his back. A hamstring strain that he reinjured in practice five weeks later. Norman did compete at the 2017 U.S. Championships, but not at full fitness, and finished seventh, missing the world championships 4x400m pool by one spot. He said this week is about “self redemption.”

Norman’s sophomore year at USC was a healthy one. Norman broke the 400m indoor record on March 10. He has taken .99 of a second off his outdoor 400m personal best, winning the NCAA title in 43.61. That’s the fastest time in the world since Wayde van Niekerk‘s world record 43.03 at the Rio Olympics. Norman is now the sixth-fastest 400m runner ever.

“I see myself as both a 200m and 400m runner,” said Norman, who hasn’t raced the 200m at a significant meet since winning the world U20 title two weeks after the Olympic Trials.

Norman and Lyles chose to room together at the 2016 World U20 Championships in Poland. They joked who would be put on the 4x400m relay (Norman led off, Lyles anchored, and the U.S. beat Japan by .08). Unlike trials, Norman has a better memory of the experience.

“Before [Lyles] raced his 100m final, he was talking to a sports psychologist,” he said. “I didn’t really know that people did that.”

Norman also remembers that Lyles is 2-0 in their all-time head to head. They could have raced this week, but Lyles chose the 100m. They are both entered in a 200m at a Diamond League meet in Lausanne on July 5.

“That’s one of my huge goals for the year, race Noah Lyles,” Norman said at the Olympic Trials.

They haven’t raced against each other since that day in Eugene. Norman had a dry-erase board at his USC dorm room on which he scribbled goals,. Though he never wrote anything about Lyles, he is certainly looking forward to their next meeting.

“It brings some more light to the sport, having rivalries like this may pique other people’s interest,” said Norman, who has gone about a year without ice cream but will indulge a Baked Bear double-decker ice-cream sandwich at the end of the season. “As long as it doesn’t become a negative, where we’re not conversing or being friendly, it will be beneficial to track and both of our careers.”

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: Usain Bolt’s Olympic spikes stolen

Five men’s events to watch at USATF Outdoor Championships

Getty Images
Leave a comment

The featured men’s events at the USA Track and Field Outdoor Championships have a bit of everything.

Dominance from Olympic medalists Ryan Crouser (shot put) and Paul Chelimo (5000m). Promise in the form of Noah Lyles (100m), Michael Norman (200m) and Grant Holloway (110m hurdles). Overcoming adversity — Matthew Centrowitz (1500m) and Clayton Murphy (800m).

A Lyles-Norman showdown in the 200m would have enough spice to headline this meet on its own, but Lyles decided against the double. That enhances the likelihood that the biggest story in Des Moines could come from one of many events on Friday, Saturday or Sunday.

There is no Olympic or world championships team to qualify for this year, which is why established stars like Justin GatlinChristian Coleman and LaShawn Merritt are out.

But their absences could yield the emergence of first-time national champions. Just look at 2014, when that list included Tianna BartolettaKori CarterJeff HendersonSam Kendricks and Joe Kovacs, all of whom have since won Olympic or world titles.

USATF Outdoors: TV Schedule | Entries | Women’s Preview | Men’s Preview

Five men’s events to watch this week:

100m (Final — Friday, 8:30 p.m. ET, Olympic Channel, NBC Sports Gold)
World gold and silver medalists Justin Gatlin and Christian Coleman are missing, but two more impressive sprinters this outdoor season go head-to-head. Noah Lyles, who finished fourth in the 200m at the 2016 Olympic Trials at age 18 and is since undefeated in that event, drops down for his first 100m at a major meet as a professional. Lyles has the joint-fastest 200m in the world this year. He chose the 100m this week for two reasons — he can improve more in the 100m than the 200m over three rounds and to try something different given his race schedule the rest of the summer is tailored for the 200m. Lyles is forgoing a matchup with Michael Norman in the 200m this week, but he should have his hands full with Ronnie Baker. Baker, who grew up running cross-country and avoiding the moose in Alaska, has been the most impressive American in the 100m this year. Baker beat a slightly injured Coleman at consecutive Diamond League meets in May and, with favorable wind, should improve on his personal best of 9.93 and overtake the fastest time in the world this year (Zharnel Hughes‘ 9.91). As should Lyles, who also has a personal best of 9.93.

Shot Put (Saturday, 3:45 p.m. ET, NBC, NBC Sports Gold)
All four men from Rio and the 2017 Worlds are here, including Olympic gold and silver medalists Ryan Crouser and Joe Kovacs. Crouser, whose father, two uncles and two cousins were elite throwers, has won 13 of his last 14 head-to-heads with Kovacs, who was taught to throw by his mom in his Pennsylvania high-school parking lot. Crouser also won his last 13 of 14 head-to-heads with Rio Olympian Darrell Hill, according to Tilastopaja.org. Crouser also has the top 23 throws by an American this year out of his 24 total legal throws in 2018 competition, according to Tilastopaja.

1500m (Final — Saturday, 5:40 p.m. ET, NBC)
Is Olympic champion Matthew Centrowitz vulnerable? He was upset at nationals last year by Robby Andrews. Centrowitz revealed afterward that he competed on 10 days of training after a series of health problems that included an emergency-room visit with a viral infection. Then at worlds, a listless Centrowitz finished last in his first-round heat and said he was unable to get more than two straight weeks of healthy training all season. The 28-year-old heads into Des Moines ranked behind Andrews and Johnny Gregorek on best times this season. At last month’s Pre Classic, Centrowitz was beaten by a countryman (Olympic 800m bronze medalist Clayton Murphy, not racing the 1500m this week) at a major race at Hayward Field for the first time in five years.

800m (Final — Sunday, 4:13 p.m. ET, NBC)
Maybe the deepest field at nationals. The six fastest Americans since the start of 2016 are here. Clayton Murphy took bronze at the Rio Olympics but withdrew during 2017 Nationals with sore hamstrings and missed worlds. Boris Berian went from flipping burgers at McDonald’s to winning the 2016 World Indoor title and placing second at the Olympic Trials. He didn’t race at all in 2017 (Achilles) and ranks 186th in the U.S. this year. Donavan Brazier won the 2017 U.S. title and 2018 U.S. Indoor title at age 20 but hasn’t raced outdoors this year. Drew Windle took silver at world indoors on March 3. NCAA champion Isaiah Harris and Erik Sowinski are the fastest Americans this outdoor season.

110m Hurdles (Final — Sunday, 5:52 p.m. ET, NBC)
An intergenerational group with 2012 Olympic champion and world-record holder Aries Merritt, 2016 Olympic Trials winner Devon Allen and Grant Holloway, a rising University of Florida junior who won all four NCAA hurdles titles his first two years and ranks second in the world this season. Merritt underwent a kidney transplant in 2015, then missed the 2016 Olympic team by .01 and missed a national title in 2017 by .07 behind Aleec Harris (who is also in this field). Allen, the former University of Oregon wide receiver, looked primed to break 13 seconds after he won the trials in 13.03, but that remains his personal best. Holloway clocked his personal best of 13.15 on May 13 and is the only American to break 13.20 this year. It’s been nearly three years since an American broke 13 seconds, the longest drought in more than two decades.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: Usain Bolt’s Olympic spikes stolen