Kerri Walsh Jennings has a new partner for her 2020 Olympic run — Rio Olympian Brooke Sweat.
“The times I’ve enjoyed the most success, consistent success, that was when there was a true defender behind me, that made me a big blocker,” Walsh Jennings said. “Brooke really sits in the same vein as [retired three-time Olympic champion partner] Misty [May-Treanor]. Brooke is her own athlete and has her own assets and strengths, but largely what Misty and Brooke share in common is their inherent knowledge in the game and the fact it’s in her blood. You can just tell she gets it.
“Brooke, literally, could be the best defender in the world.”
Walsh Jennings, a 40-year-old with three Olympic titles and three children, and Sweat, who went winless in Rio with Lauren Fendrick, are entered in two early Olympic qualifying tournaments this month in Las Vegas and Mexico. The Las Vegas event doubles as a stop on Walsh Jennings’ new p1440 tour.
Walsh Jennings is entered in an event in China this week with 23-year-old Kelly Claes, but 32-year-old Sweat will be her full-time partner for a potential sixth Olympic run.
“She called me, I forget, maybe two months ago, just asked if I’d be interested [in practicing together],” Sweat said, adding that Walsh Jennings was trying out one other player. “Eventually, she made her decision and asked me if I wanted to play and go for gold with her.
“It’s always nice to have one of the best players ever calling you. It was a good day.”
Olympic beach volleyball qualifying runs into 2020, with no more than two pairs per gender per nation earning Tokyo berths.
The best U.S. teams at the moment are Sara Hughes and Summer Ross, who won a top-level international event last month, and April Ross and Alix Klineman, the top team in the 2018 AVP season.
“The toughest thing about our journey right now with Brooke and I is we’re starting at the bottom,” Walsh Jennings said. “I respect all the teams on the American side. I’m not concerned about them. I always want to concern myself with my team and my team only.”
Earlier this year, Walsh Jennings played with fellow mom and 2008 Olympian Nicole Branagh, while Sweat was with Summer Ross before Ross partnered with Hughes. Both Walsh Jennings and Sweat split from their Rio Olympic partners less than a year after the Games.
While Walsh Jennings has 55 career international titles (the last with April Ross in 2016 after their Olympic bronze medals), Sweat’s best finish in 58 starts was a runner-up in 2017.
Walsh Jennings and Branagh never found consistency in competition before breaking up in July, in part because Walsh Jennings’ 2017 season ended prematurely with her sixth right shoulder surgery (followed by an ankle surgery).
In 10 FIVB tournaments together, their best finish was fourth, and they had just one other quarterfinal. Walsh Jennings can become the oldest Olympic beach volleyball player in history in Tokyo.
“I”m pretty sure that I would have retired had we won [gold in Rio],” Walsh Jennings said on the On Her Turf podcast. “For a year and a bit, I have lived in fear, in fear of regressing, in fear of being that player who showed up that [Rio Olympic] semifinal [loss] night. … I had this [bad] night, and I dragged April down with it, which will always bug me, because she deserves that gold.”
Walsh Jennings said before her 2018 season that the 2020 Olympics would be her last, assuming she qualifies.
“I want to finish on top. I want to go out with a fairytale ending,” she said.
Sweat hasn’t played since the first week of May due to season-ending surgery on a right shoulder that’s bothered her for three years. Sweat had a previous shoulder surgery Sept. 10, 2015, the same day as Walsh Jennings’ fifth right shoulder surgery.
Sweat first saw Walsh Jennings during her freshman year at Florida Gulf Coast University. Walsh Jennings and May-Treanor visited a Fort Myers Toyota dealership for an exhibition. FGCU players were invited to play against the Olympic champions, but Sweat sat out with a knee injury.
Sweat said she and Walsh Jennings had talked about playing together earlier in this Olympic cycle, but the timing was not right.
“It’s not about my shoulder or her shoulder,” Sweat said. “We’re in this for Tokyo gold. That’s my focus.”
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