Kerri Walsh Jennings made her first tournament final since 2016 this week. She likely must reach more in what’s looking like her toughest road to an Olympic beach volleyball berth.
Walsh Jennings, a 40-year-old, triple Olympic champion, and new partner Brooke Sweat took runner-up at a mid-level FIVB World Tour event in Kuala Lumpur on Saturday.
Accomplished Czechs Barbora Hermannova and Marketa Slukova rallied past the Americans 24-26, 22-20, 15-12. But Walsh Jennings and Sweat still earned enough points to jump to the top of the very early U.S. Olympic qualifying rankings.
The key is that Walsh Jennings and Sweat have played the most events of the contending teams. The top two pairs come June 15, 2020, provided they’re ranked high enough internationally, will qualify for Tokyo. Most of the qualifying events, including the ones with the most points available, are still to come this summer.
Each team’s 12 best results go into the Olympic qualifying rankings. Alix Klineman and April Ross are in a stronger current position than Walsh Jennings and Sweat because they’re averaging more points per tournament having played two fewer events.
The Kuala Lumpur field lacked any teams from powerhouse Brazil. Also absent were Ross and Klineman and Sara Hughes and Summer Ross, the two U.S. teams to win top-level events last season.
Kuala Lumpur marked the sixth international event for Walsh Jennings since splitting from 2008 Olympian Nicole Branagh and partnering with Sweat last fall.
Walsh Jennings’ 2017 season, after she and Rio Olympic bronze-medal partner April Ross split, ended prematurely with her sixth right shoulder surgery (followed by an ankle surgery). She said before the 2018 season that the 2020 Olympics would be her last, assuming she qualifies.
Walsh Jennings and Branagh had a best 2018 finish of fifth in six FIVB events before splitting. She and Sweat, who partnered with Lauren Fendrick in Rio, have a pair of thirds and now a runner-up in six events together.
Another veteran Olympian, 41-year-old Reid Priddy, had his best career finish by making the Kuala Lumpur final with Theo Brunner. Brazilians Alison and Alvaro Filho swept them 24-22, 21-18.
Priddy switched to the sand after competing in his fourth Olympic indoor tournament in Rio. Priddy and Brunner are one of several U.S. men’s teams jockeying for two potential Olympic berths.
The top U.S. men’s team in this Olympic cycle has clearly been 2008 Olympic champion Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena, who were absent from Kuala Lumpur and have played just two events in the Olympic qualifying window, finishing second in one of them.
OlympicTalk recently caught up with Katie Ledecky to discuss life since moving from Stanford to Florida 15 months ago, her meticulous mindset, and the legacy she continues to build.
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity. You can also catch an encore presentation of Ledecky’s performance at the 2022 U.S. Open this Saturday at 4:30 pm ET on NBC.
What does a typical day look like for you Gainesville? Walk me through a full day starting from the minute your alarm clock goes off.
Ledecky: A typical day would be waking up at 5 o’clock in the morning and swimming from 6 to 8. Then I have weights from 8 to 9:15. I get breakfast, have lunch and then take a nap. Then I have practice again at 2 or 3 in the afternoon for another two hours.
Wow, that sounds incredibly busy! Have you had a chance to find any new favorite places to eat in Gainesville?
Ledecky: I’m still kind of finding my spots. There is a breakfast spot pretty close to campus that a lot of the swimmers like, so I go there quite a bit, but I’m still looking. I haven’t gone to very many places more than once.
What are you doing in your free time? Are you coaching?
Ledecky: Yes, I’m volunteering with the [University of Florida] team, but I think of myself more as a teammate. I have a lot of other things going on with sponsorships, but aside from that, I enjoy spending time with my family and friends. I have a piano and enjoy playing that!
How often do you get to see your family?
Ledecky: My parents, David and Mary, still live in the D.C. area, and then my brother, Michael, lives in New York, so I’m a lot closer to home [than at Stanford]. I see them around the holidays, and they come to a lot of my swim meets.
I know how much you love to stay academically engaged. Are you taking any classes at the University of Florida?
Ledecky: I’m not taking any classes right now. I’m taking a break, but I’m still trying to learn as much as I can just in other areas, reading a lot and watching the news, following different things that I’m interested in. I think at some point, I’ll probably go to grad school, but I’m still figuring out what area that would be in right now.
There’s a quote, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” I feel like that only scratches the surface of describing your work ethic and mindset. You demand excellence in every area of your life, not just from yourself, but from others around you. Can you talk about where that mindset comes from?
Ledecky: I’ve always had that kind of a mindset. I’m very driven, and I’m always setting new goals for myself no matter what I’ve achieved in the past. I’m always looking forward, I don’t take very many breaks, and so it’s always on to the next goal and making sure I’m doing the little things right and doing the things I need to do to reach my goals.
To be able to perform at the level that you do every single day takes a lot of mental toughness. What do Katie Ledecky’s inner thoughts look like? What do you tell yourself? Any affirmations?
Ledecky: I try to stay positive no matter how well or how poorly a practice or a race is going. When I’m swimming, I give myself positive mental pep talks along the way throughout a race. I’ll say “keep it up,” “hold pace” or “hit this turn.”
I just want to read you a few tweets…
I know we frequently talk about how dominant Katie Ledecky is but I somehow still feel like we don’t talk about her enough.
You idolized Michael Phelps when you were younger, and now you’re that person for a lot of people. You’re the GOAT. You’re Katie Ledecky. Someone’s idol. What does that feel like?
Ledecky: It’s an honor to have young swimmers look up to me, and I don’t take that lightly. I try to be a good role model and reach out to young kids and sign autographs and take photos if people approach me at swim meets. I hope that there are some young swimmers out there that will grow up to be champions or maybe they’ll just continue to love the sport or find other things that they’re passionate about, but it’s an honor.
Have you had any memorable interactions with young swimmers?
Ledecky: Yeah, actually the World Cup in Indianapolis [in November]. We were given those giant checks at the end of the meet that you really can’t travel with, so I was able to sign it and give it to one of the basket carriers at the meet. They were thrilled, and it was fun to be able to put a smile on their face.
Give me just one word to describe each of these milestones in your life, starting with the 2012 Olympics.
Ledecky: The first. It was my first international competition and my first gold medal, so that’s the one that’ll probably be the most special for me forever.
2016 Rio Olympics.
Ledecky: Consistency. I was swimming in multiple events at the Olympics for the first time and I just got into a really good rhythm and felt so comfortable in the pool deck. So confident. That was just a very unique feeling.
Ledecky: Tokyo was different with all the COVID protocols. Nobody in the stands. No family there. But it was a lot of fun still, so a lot of great memories with my teammates there.
What kind of legacy do you want to leave behind at the end of your career? What do you want to be remembered for?
Ledecky: I’d like to be remembered as somebody that worked really hard and gave my best effort every time I got up on the blocks and represented Team USA. Hopefully, I can continue to inspire young kids to work hard in whatever it is that they are passionate about, whether that’s something academic, athletic, or something else. If you find something that you really love, you should go all in on it and try to be the best you can be at it.
You’ve achieved so much in life already personally and professionally, I just want to ask: Are you genuinely happy? Are you satisfied in this season of life right now?
Ledecky: Oh yeah, I’m very happy. I love the sport more and more every year. I get a little sad thinking about the day I will eventually retire–which isn’t anytime soon. I love the sport. I’m trying to just enjoy every day of training and racing and trying to be the best that I can be.
I say this all the time, I never imagined I would even make it to one Olympics and so to be training now to try to qualify for a fourth Olympics is it’s all just icing on the cake at this point and something that I truly enjoy. I enjoy doing it with my teammates, striving for similar goals, and getting to do it with really great people.
Knowing all that you know now, what advice would you give to your younger self — the little Palisades Porpoise?
Ledecky: I don’t have very many regrets or anything in my career, so I think I would just continue to tell myself to have fun and enjoy every moment. Maybe, write down a little bit more early on. I’ve done a better job of journaling and writing down different things so that I can remember them down the road, but I didn’t do as good of a job in 2012 and 2013.
Finish this sentence: I’m not ready for a meet without …
Ledecky: My suit, cap and goggles.
Did you have AIM back in the day? What was your embarrassing screen name?
Ledecky: I didn’t. I didn’t even have a cell phone until before the London Olympics. I think I actually borrowed my brother’s phone for that, and then we went out and bought an iPad so that I could FaceTime my family from London. I didn’t have an email account either until high school.
Your life is on the line. You need to sing one karaoke song to save it. What are you picking?
Marie-Philip Poulin became the first female hockey player to win Canada’s Athlete of the Year after captaining the national team at the Winter Olympics and winning her third gold medal.
Poulin, 31, scored twice and assisted once in Canada’s 3-2 win over the U.S. in the Olympic final on Feb. 17. She has scored seven of Canada’s 10 goals over the last four Olympic finals dating to the 2010 Vancouver Games — all against the U.S.
Nine different male hockey players won Canada Athlete of the Year — now called the Northern Star Award — since its inception in 1936, led by Wayne Gretzky‘s four titles. Sidney Crosby won it in 2007 and 2009, and Carey Price was the most recent in 2015.
Poulin is the fifth consecutive Olympic champion to win the award in an Olympic year after bobsledder Kaillie Humphries in 2014, swimmer Penny Oleksiak in 2016, moguls skier Mikaël Kingsbury in 2018 and decathlete Damian Warner in 2021.
Canada’s other gold medalists at February’s Olympics were snowboarder Max Parrot in slopestyle, plus teams in speed skating’s women’s team pursuit and short track’s men’s 5000m relay.
In men’s hockey, Cale Makar won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP in leading the Colorado Avalanche to the Stanley Cup and the Norris Trophy as the season’s best defenseman.
The Northern Star Award is annually decided by Canadian sports journalists.