Kerri Walsh Jennings and April Ross mathematically qualified for the Rio Olympics with their first serve Wednesday, capping an obstacle-filled year that at one point included doubts about Walsh Jennings’ availability for a fifth Olympic run.
All six U.S. beach volleyball pairs still in Olympic qualifying contention (for four total spots) are entered in the Cincinnati Open this week (results here). The finals will air on NBC and NBC Sports Live Extra on Saturday at 3 p.m. ET.
Walsh Jennings and Ross met the minimum number of tournaments played for Olympic qualifying by competing in Cincinnati.
That also gave them a qualifying point total that only one other U.S. team — Lauren Fendrick and Brooke Sweat — could possibly pass by the June 13 deadline.
And with the U.S. set to send two pairs per gender to the Olympics, that means Walsh Jennings and Ross will go to Rio. The U.S. Olympic beach volleyball teams are expected to be officially named after the June 13 deadline.
Walsh Jennings and Ross’ Olympic qualification was clouded last spring and summer.
Walsh Jennings, a 37-year-old mother of three, dislocated her right shoulder during matches May 27 and July 10 and required a fifth career right shoulder surgery.
Not knowing immediately when she would have surgery — and the uncertainty of how it would impact their Olympic qualifying — Walsh Jennings told Ross to pick a substitute partner “you picture yourself winning a gold medal with” while the three-time Olympic champion was sidelined.
But Walsh Jennings endured through the injury to play three tournaments with Ross in August and September, with minimal right arm use, before surgery. Those results ensured they would meet the minimum number of tournaments after Walsh Jennings returned this season.
Walsh Jennings and Ross have two titles in four FIVB tournaments this year, including semifinal appearances in every event. They are Olympic medal favorites along with Brazilian pairs Larissa and Talita and Agatha and Barbara.
Ross said their coach, Brazil native Marcio Sicoli, has a three-block plan. The second block concluded with qualification Wednesday.
“We don’t know what that consists of, but he’s got a plan,” Ross said, according to USA Volleyball. “The first block was preseason, the second block was qualifying through the tournaments and block three will be after qualification, preparing for and through the Olympics.”
Fendrick and Sweat are likely to qualify for their first Olympic team, unless 2012 Olympic silver medalist Jennifer Kessy and Emily Day perform extremely well in the final three qualifying tournaments.
The picture is similar on the U.S. men’s side. Beijing Olympic champion Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena will likely clinch an Olympic berth once they achieve the minimum tournaments played.
They are two events short with three events remaining, including Cincinnati, where they are entered.
Two-time Olympian Jake Gibb and Casey Patterson hold a comfortable edge over John Hyden and Tri Bourne for the likely No. 2 spot.