Nicole Branagh

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Kerri Walsh Jennings, Nicole Branagh end beach volleyball partnership

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Kerri Walsh Jennings and Nicole Branagh ended the longest-standing partnership at the top level of U.S. women’s beach volleyball after a little more than one year.

“Nicole and I have decided to end our beach volleyball partnership,” Walsh Jennings said, via her agent. “We had a really wonderful year plus together, and yet our finishes and our trajectory were unsatisfactory. We are both excited to figure out next steps with regard to our next partnerships. I know we both have big plans and dreams for ourselves in the sport and so the journeying will continue!”

Walsh Jennings, a three-time Olympic champion, has not announced a new partner with the lengthy Olympic qualifying window starting in September.

The pair withdrew from next week’s FIVB World Tour event in Vienna, Austria. Branagh is still entered in this week’s AVP event in Hermosa Beach, Calif. Walsh no longer plays AVP after a contract dispute.

Walsh Jennings and Branagh, a pair of 39-year-olds with a combined five children, were bidding to together become the oldest Olympic beach volleyball players in history in Tokyo.

They partnered last year after Walsh Jennings and April Ross split less than a year after their bronze in Rio as Ross signed her AVP contract. Branagh was not Walsh Jennings’ first choice. The three-time gold medalist with the now-retired Misty May-Treanor appealed to the younger Sara Hughes, who declined.

Walsh Jennings and Branagh never found consistency in competition, 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 appearance.

Every other top-level U.S. beach volleyball player changed partners since Walsh Jennings and Branagh teamed up. Ross is now with Alix Klineman. The U.S. can qualify no more than two pairs for the Tokyo Games in two years.

MORE: 20 U.S. athletes to watch, 2 years out from Tokyo 2020

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Kerri Walsh Jennings pleased by result after longest break in five years

Kerri Walsh Jennings
FIVB World Tour
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Kerri Walsh Jennings returned from her longest competition break since 2013 and, with partner Nicole Branagh, nearly beat the world’s top-ranked team.

Walsh Jennings and Branagh ultimately were eliminated in the round of 16 at the Xiamen Open in China.

“We WILL do better,” was posted on Walsh Jennings’ social media. “We actually had a great showing and learned and battled and improved – sometimes the stats don’t show everything.”

Walsh Jennings and Branagh, a pair of 39-year-old moms, played together for the first time since July 22, when Walsh Jennings’ five-times surgically repaired right shoulder popped out mid-match.

Walsh Jennings, eyeing her sixth and final Olympics in 2020, underwent a sixth shoulder surgery and an ankle surgery and did not return to training on the beach until March (her longest break between hitting a ball on sand since switching from indoor following the 2000 Olympics).

The duo won their opening Xiamen match in three sets last week, then lost a three-setter to the world’s No. 1 team in group play. Canadians Sarah Pavan and Melissa Humana-Paredes prevailed 21-15, 22-24, 18-16 en route to the tournament title.

After Walsh Jennings and Branagh swept American qualifiers Kelley Larsen and Emily Stockman in the first elimination round, they squandered a one-set lead in the round of 16. Australians Mariafe Artacho and Taliqua Clancy eliminated them 19-21, 21-16, 20-18.

Walsh Jennings said before flying to Xiamen that she and Branagh would next play on the FIVB World Tour at the Itapema Open in Brazil in mid-May. In four FIVB World Tour events since partnering last year, they were eliminated in qualifying once, bounced in the round of 16 twice and forfeited a bronze-medal match due to that shoulder dislocation.

Early season partner changes defined the U.S. women’s landscape. In Xiamen, one of those new teams, Kelly Claes and Brittany Hochevar, reached the final, losing to the Canadians.

It marked the first final four appearance on the senior FIVB World Tour for the 22-year-old Claes, an NCAA champion at USC with former partner Sara Hughes, and for the 36-year-old Hochevar, the older sister of former Kansas City Royals pitcher Luke Hochevar.

MORE: Walsh Jennings documents comeback from surgeries

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Kerri Walsh Jennings to miss world championships

Kerri Walsh Jennings
FIVB World Tour
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Kerri Walsh Jennings will miss the world beach volleyball championships that start this weekend after dislocating her five-times surgically repaired right shoulder in a match last Saturday, according to the FIVB.

Walsh Jennings, 38 and a three-time Olympic champion, and new partner Nicole Branagh had their best tournament of the year before Walsh Jennings went down in Olsztyn, Poland, last week (video here).

They were in a third-set semifinal battle with Canadians Melissa Humana-Paredes and Sarah Pavan when Walsh Jennings suffered the injury digging a ball.

Walsh Jennings won three straight world titles with Misty May-Treanor in 2003, 2005 and 2007, in addition to her record four Olympic beach volleyball medals.

Walsh Jennings and Rio Olympic partner April Ross were bounced in the round of 16 at the last worlds in 2015. Walsh Jennings played that tournament one month after dislocating her right shoulder in a match. She missed the 2013 Worlds after giving birth to her third child.

Walsh Jennings and Ross split three months ago after Walsh Jennings decided not to sign a contract with the domestic AVP league.

Ross is slated to play with Rio Olympian Lauren Fendrick at worlds in Vienna starting Friday. The other U.S. teams include Sara Hughes and Kelly Claes and Brooke Sweat and Summer Ross. Branagh will now pair with Emily Day at worlds.

Olympic champions Kira Walkenhorst and Laura Ludwig of Germany and top Brazilians Larissa and Talita headline the women’s field.

The top U.S. medal hope is on the men’s side with 2008 Olympic champion Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena, but Rio gold medalists Alison and Bruno of Brazil loom.

MORE: April Ross discusses playing without Kerri Walsh Jennings

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