NEW YORK (AP) — Kerri Walsh Jennings enjoyed two weeks of pain-free beach volleyball competition in Brazil, testing her surgically-repaired shoulder in the hopes of qualifying for the Rio Olympics.
The three-time Olympic gold medalist played her first matches after a six-month layoff following surgery on her torn right labrum and capsule.
“Amazing. Didn’t think about it once, which is shocking,” Walsh Jennings said Tuesday during a stopover on her way home to California. “There’s no pain and I just need to keep getting stronger. I feel very confident we’ll qualify and win.”
She’s teaming up with April Ross in an attempt to win her fourth gold medal. They recently won the Rio Grand Slam in Copacabana, the site of the Olympic venue this summer, before losing to the No. 1 Brazilian team at the Vitoria Open.
“My trainer said, ‘Let’s just take a moment and think about what just happened — 14 days of playing, there were 30-something sets and not one scare,’” she said.
There was reason for concern after Walsh Jennings dislocated her right shoulder twice in two months last summer, had surgery in September and returned to training in January.
“My labrum tore off the bone, the labrum itself didn’t tear,” she said. “So actually, oddly, it made recovery a little easier.”
So how did her shoulder feel after all that volleyball on the beaches of Brazil?
“Awesome. It felt really good, it would get tired, but that’s nothing abnormal,” she said. “I felt really strong. I didn’t want to come back at 80 percent. I didn’t want any setbacks.”
On Sunday, Walsh Jennings and Ross lost to Brazilians Larissa and Talita in what could be a preview of the final in Rio. They’ve been the toughest team so far, beating the Americans twice in the past year and snapping a 13-0 winning streak.
“The more we play them, the better for us,” Walsh Jennings said. “We played them when I was playing left handed [because of her injury]. This last time we were almost at full strength. We were up 16-11 and let that slip away in game one. They played out of their minds, which is what they’re going to have to do to beat us.”
The Americans have played nine Olympic qualifying events and need to compete in 12 before the June deadline. They must be ranked among the top 16 teams in the world and at least the No. 2 U.S. team to qualify for Rio. They’ve already reached that mark and their ranking will only improve after the results in Brazil.
Walsh Jennings last played at the Copacabana in September, three days before her surgery. This time, she had better memories.
“Every visual image, every sensory experience I put it in my pocket so I could take it home with me and create the vision and the masterpiece,” she said. “When we go back in August, we’re just going to be so ready.”
Walsh Jennings also had shoulder surgery several months before her last two Olympics and won gold with partner Misty May-Treanor. She was pregnant with her third child, Scout, while winning gold at the 2012 London Games.
Walsh Jennings said she’s not overly concerned about the outbreak in parts of Brazil of the mosquito-borne Zika virus, which can cause birth defects. She said it wasn’t a topic of conversation in Rio.
“I understand it’s a health concern when the World Health Organization is involved and babies are involved,” she said. “I’ll educate myself about all the remedies and preventatives and cover up.”
Next she’ll team with her partner in two Olympic qualifying events in China in April, followed by another in Cincinnati in May. By then, the duo hopes to be one step closer to returning to the sands of Copacabana in August.