Kerri Walsh Jennings, Brooke Sweat reach beach volleyball worlds via the minors

Kerri Walsh Jennings, Brooke Sweat
FIVB World Tour
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Kerri Walsh Jennings‘ dedication to beach volleyball is being tested in her sixth and final Olympic cycle like never before. She and new partner Brooke Sweat have flown across continents with no guarantee that they’ll be in tournament main draws or receive full travel stipends.

Walsh Jennings and Sweat, who announced their partnership in October, became familiar with the term “country quota” en route to the world championships that began Friday in Germany (TV schedule here).

Country quota is “the bane of all U.S. and Brazilian players,” NBC Sports analyst Kevin Wong said.

Top international events cap the number of teams per country, usually at three. If more than three pairs want to play, the lowest-ranked aspirants face an international qualifier, which also has a cap per nation. If that’s not enough to accommodate everybody, an even earlier qualifier is held just for teams from that nation — the country quota.

Since it usually happens at an event site days before the main draw, the venue is often still being set up. Crowds are scant: Sometimes just people associated with the two playing teams, and maybe some crew workers setting up for later in the week.

“It’s almost like you’re playing in the minor leagues,” NBC Sports analyst Dain Blanton said. “The match means a lot, but there’s not a lot of fanfare or hype around it. It’s interesting seeing maybe the most decorated female athlete of all time in the sport have to go through it.”

It mostly applies to the U.S. and Brazil, the sport’s longtime world powers with several relevant teams looking to play the tour’s elite events.

Walsh Jennings can’t remember ever playing country quota with Misty May-Treanor, with whom she won three Olympic gold medals, because they were always ranked so high. Nor with April Ross, her 2016 Olympic bronze-medal partner. Sweat, a Rio Olympian with former partner Lauren Fendrick, said she hadn’t played country quota since 2012.

But Walsh Jennings and Sweat were each low on individual ranking points from the start of their partnership. Both missed time since Rio with shoulder surgeries and multiple partner changes. When they teamed up, their combined points weren’t enough to ensure spots in main draws.

So they traveled early for tournaments in Brazil and the Czech Republic this spring to face other U.S. teams for the right to enter qualifiers. Walsh Jennings and Sweat won four matches in Ostrava, Czech Republic, last month just to reach the tournament’s main draw.

They played 11 matches total in Ostrava, finishing third overall. It marked the only time Walsh Jennings played double-digit matches at one event in more than 250 career tournaments dating to 2001, according to BVBinfo.com. Walsh Jennings, a 40-year-old mother of three, is bidding to become the oldest Olympic beach volleyball player in history.

“We looked at it as a gift, an opportunity to get better under the gun,” Walsh Jennings said Saturday by phone from Huntington Beach, where she held a volleyball clinic for about 30 girls from Starlings Volleyball USA and surprised the club with a donation through the Dick’s Sporting Goods Foundation. “I would never want to be handed everything freely.”

Walsh Jennings said that any time she considered complaining about their situation, she thought of her husband. Casey Jennings played from 1999 through 2018, including more than 20 country quota matches with five different partners, according to BVBInfo.

“It made him really gnarly,” she said.

Walsh Jennings and Sweat’s country quota days may be over. They worked their way back toward the top of U.S. beach volleyball, reaching the semifinals of three of their last four events. In China, Walsh Jennings notched her first tournament win in nearly three years, and Sweat got the first international title of her career.

They still needed a wild card to get into the world championships, given the automatic entries were based on world rankings from nearly two months ago (and there is no country quota for worlds).

Four U.S. teams were ranked higher back then, led by Ross and Alix Klineman. But now Walsh Jennings and Sweat are second in the most important ranking, the one that will be used to determine the Olympic field in a year. That list will fluctuate the next few weeks with worlds and major events in Europe.

“We can beat anyone in the world when we’re playing our game,” Sweat said. “We’re definitely one of the top teams in the world.”

All those extra matches led to Walsh Jennings and Sweat withdrawing before their last pre-worlds event in Poland. Walsh Jennings said they needed “body maintenance.” Sweat called it precautionary before wearing several strips of black tape on the back of her neck in Friday’s opener of pool play.

Walsh Jennings and Sweat lost to a Dutch pair 21-15, 19-21, 15-9. They could still play nine matches in nine days, if they reach the medal round. They’re certainly prepared for it.

“We feel like we got through the hardest part of the season,” Walsh Jennings said last week.

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