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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‘Race and Sports in America: Conversations’ primetime special covers social justice, combating inequality

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Athletes, including Olympians, discussed social justice, locker room conversations about race and ways that sports can help combat inequality in “Race and Sports in America: Conversations,” airing Monday at 8 p.m. ET on NBCSN, Olympic Channel, Golf Channel and NBC Sports Regional Networks.

NBC Sports’ Damon Hack hosted roundtables with active and retired athletes at the American Century Championship Golf Tournament in Lake Tahoe, Nevada, last week.

Panelists, including Olympians James Blake and Charles Barkley and Tokyo Olympic hopeful Stephen Curry, also reflected on personal experiences.

Barkley, an Olympic gold medalist in 1992 and 1996, said coaches recently reached out to him to speak to their teams.

“First of all, relax and breathe,” Barkley said. “This crap started 400 years ago. We can’t do nothing about that. We can’t do anything about systematic racism. What I challenge every Black person, every white person to do: What can I do today going forward?

“You have to ask yourself, I want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. Because if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.”

Blake, a retired former top-five tennis player and 2008 Olympian, was wrestled to the ground, handcuffed and arrested by a plainclothes New York City police officer in 2015 in a case of mistaken identity caught on video. The police officer’s punishment was a loss of five vacation days.

“The first thing I said when I got tackled was, I’m complying 100 percent,” Blake said. “And that shouldn’t have to be your response the first time you interact with a police officer. And because that’s the way my dad taught me is stay alive. Do whatever you can to stay alive. Sort it out later with lawyers or however you want to do it, and stay alive in that moment. The fact you have to have those rules in 2020 means maybe we have to do something drastic to change the way police interact with the African-American community and the way the community interacts with the police.”

Curry said his daughters, 7-year-old Riley and 5-year-old Ryan, asked questions about the images they recently saw. He’s not shielding them, but rather being honest about society, going back centuries.

“We have to continue to double down and double down and keep people accountable in all walks of life, all industries, all forms of leadership, the judicial system, all those type of things,” Curry said. “And hopefully for my kids’ generation, their kids, we will see change. I’m hopeful and optimistic about, but I understand how much work will need to go into that.”

The full list of athletes who participated in the “Race and Sports in America: Conversations” roundtables:

• Charles Barkley – 1992 and 1996 Olympic basketball champion
• James Blake – 10-time ATP tennis champion, 2008 Olympian
• Stephen Curry – two-time NBA MVP, two-time FIBA world champion
• Troy Mullins – World Long Drive competitor
• Anthony Lynn – Los Angeles Chargers head coach
• Jimmy Rollins – World Series champion shortstop
• Kyle Rudolph – Minnesota Vikings tight end
• Ozzie Smith – Major League Baseball Hall of Famer

Additionally, Hack was joined by Super Bowl champion running back Jerome Bettis for an extended interview that will be published on NBC Sports’ digital and podcast platforms.

MORE: Elana Meyers Taylor’s claims of racism in bobsled being investigated

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Shelby Houlihan shatters American 5000m record

Shelby Houlihan
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Shelby Houlihan chopped 10.52 seconds off her own American 5000m record, clocking 14:23.92 at a Bowerman Track Club intrasquad meet in Portland, Ore., on Friday night.

Houlihan, who was 11th in the Rio Olympic 5000m, has in this Olympic cycle improved to become one of the greatest female distance runners in U.S. history.

She first broke Shannon Rowbury‘s American record in the 5000m by 4.47 seconds in 2018. In 2019, she broke Rowbury’s American record in the 1500m by 1.3 seconds in finishing fourth at the world championships in 3:54.99.

On Friday, Houlihan and second-place Karissa Schweizer both went under the American record. Schweizer, 24 and three years younger than Houlihan, clocked 14:26.34, staying with Houlihan until the winner’s 61-second final lap.

“I knew Karissa was going to try to come up on me and take the lead. She does that every time,” Houlihan told USATF.tv. “I had decided I was not going to let that happen.”

Houlihan improved from 41st to 12th on the world’s all-time 5000m list, 12.77 seconds behind Ethiopian Tirunesh Dibaba‘s world record.

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