Kerri Walsh Jennings
FIVB

Kerri Walsh Jennings, after her longest break, eyes last Olympic run

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Kerri Walsh Jennings cried.

In early March, she shed tears after jumping from the sand and slapping a ball in practice for the first time in more than six months, ending the longest break between hits in a career that’s included three Olympic gold medals and three childbirths.

“Since then, it’s just been back to basics,” Walsh Jennings, who has had longer breaks between tournaments, said last week. “It’s gnarly, man, this job of ours. You know, when you want something so bad and you believe, but there are just unknowns.”

Walsh Jennings and Nicole Branagh, who partnered last year, return to competition at an FIVB World Tour event in Xiamen, China, next week. Branagh has two children of her own. Both women are 39 years old.

They last played together in a tournament on July 22. That’s when Walsh Jennings dislocated her five-times surgically repaired right shoulder. They were 14-all in the third set. Walsh Jennings lunged into the sand for a dig, and it popped out.

She needed a sixth right shoulder surgery. It would end her season.

“I don’t have arthritis in my shoulder,” she said. “[My doctor was] like, your shoulder’s in remarkably good condition. But he also told me that when he was in surgery for my sixth one, his assistant in there was like, that doesn’t look like a shoulder anymore.”

Walsh Jennings tacked on another surgery. This is where the unknown comes in. Her right ankle was bothersome since before the Rio Olympics and exacerbated in 2017. She likened it to trying to walk in quicksand.

“I blew out my ankle 30 days before my first Olympics,” as an indoor player in 2000, Walsh Jennings said, noting that she walked in a boot in the Opening Ceremony in Sydney, before moving to the more forgiving beach sand. “Fast forward 20 years, after not addressing that significant injury, I had major issues.”

Walsh Jennings, usually towering at the net at 6 feet, 3 inches, was held up by crutches for two weeks after surgery. She spent at least another week or two wheeling around on a scooter.

She returned to the Southern California sand for practice with Branagh on March 8.

“I’m at a frustrating transitional discomfort, getting the capability of my body, but I know it will lead to better things,” she said. “I have to work through all this newness and connect the dots, because I feel a bit disconnected.”

Walsh Jennings and Branagh rekindle their partnership again (they also partnered briefly in 2010 during Misty May-Treanor‘s break). They plan to play the two remaining five-star FIVB events this season (the sport’s “majors”), plus the majority of the eight remaining four-star events.

Walsh Jennings is also starting her own beach volleyball series called p1440 (inspired by the number of minutes in one day). The schedule of eight tournaments for the 2018-19 season should be announced later this month.

Their goal is to become the top American team by the end of the season. And to go to Tokyo, when they will be older than every previous Olympic beach volleyball player.

Walsh Jennings is firm in two commitments, that she and Branagh will not break up their partnership before then and that they will be her final Games.

“No doubt, as an athlete for sure,” she said. “I will support for the rest of my days.”

Every other notable U.S. woman changed partners since Walsh Jennings’ injury.

Her Olympic bronze-medal partner, April Ross, is now with Alix KlinemanSara Hughes, a promising 23-year-old courted by Walsh Jennings last year, split from USC teammate Kelly Claes. Hughes paired with Summer Ross. Claes is entered in Xiamen with Brittany Hochevar.

Lauren Fendrick and April Ross earned silver at worlds last year, but after Ross went to Klineman, Fendrick is now reunited with her 2016 Olympic teammate, Brooke Sweat, in next month’s Huntington Beach Open.

Walsh Jennings and Branagh are now the longest-running partnership among the top U.S. teams. They intend to keep it that way.

“We’re committed. We’re partners,” Walsh Jennings said. “All that stuff [the other teams changing] is fun to think about, but it really is not impactful toward us at all. The focus is still with us, and that’s how it should be.”

Walsh Jennings wouldn’t mind one more milestone, but it’s in the distance. She has 133 tournament wins combining domestic and international events, according to BVBInfo.com. Karch Kiraly holds the U.S. record of 148 wins.

“For a while, that was the focus,” Walsh Jennings said of Kiraly, who was passed by Brazilian legend Emanuel (who retired with 151 wins, according to the International Volleyball Hall of Fame). “Then I got hurt and was like, I’m just happy to play.”

Walsh Jennings won 11 times in 2014 and eight times in 2016 but has zero since August 2016. A victory next week in China won’t necessarily mean finishing first.

“It has to be a stepping stone,” Walsh Jennings said. “I’m not anywhere near where I need to be or where I will be to compete for a gold medal.”

MORE: Top U.S. men’s team wins season’s first beach volleyball major

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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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MORE: AL MVP nixes unretirement for Olympic baseball qualifying

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.