Sara Hughes, Summer Ross net U.S. beach volleyball’s biggest breakout in a decade

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Sara Hughes and Summer Ross bagged the biggest title for a U.S. women’s beach volleyball team — not including Kerri Walsh Jennings or April Ross — in more than a decade on Sunday.

Hughes, 23, and Summer Ross, 25, beat formidable Brazilians Agatha and Duda 21-19, 12-21, 15-12 in the final of an FIVB World Tour event in Moscow. It’s the first international title for the team of Hughes and Ross, who partnered in March.

“Being in the finals meant everything, and I’m so happy I had this girl by my side,” Hughes said. “Brazil, they played great, and we just competed hard and came out with the win.”

It’s a welcome victory for U.S. beach volleyball, which is looking for young players to succeed Walsh Jennings, who is 39, and April Ross, who is 36.

Sunday marked the first FIVB senior-level tournament title for either player, Hughes’ first final and the first final for Summer Ross in five years. The duo also won both of their AVP starts this season, rolling into Olympic qualifying that starts later this year.

Hughes and Ross (no relation to April) previously showed potential with other partners. Hughes and Kelly Claes won four NCAA titles at USC, causing Walsh Jennings to court Hughes as a potential partner a year ago. Hughes declined.

Ross was an early 2016 U.S. Olympic hopeful with Emily Day, reaching four FIVB World Tour Grand Slam quarterfinals in 2013 and 2014. But they broke up at the end of the 2014 season, and Brooke Sweat and Lauren Fendrick ended up grabbing the second Olympic spot after Walsh Jennings and Ross.

Hughes and Ross and April Ross and Alix Klineman are the only U.S. women’s pairs to win top-level FIVB events since August 2016. Every top U.S. beach team has formed in the last year. Walsh Jennings is currently without a partner after breaking up with 2008 Olympian Nicole Branagh.

MORE: Walsh Jennings narrows potential partner list

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Kerri Walsh Jennings confirms plan to retire, narrows partner list

Kerri Walsh Jennings
AP
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ALAMEDA, Calif. (AP) — Kerri Walsh Jennings will call it a career in beach volleyball after the Tokyo Olympics in two years.

She has big plans before her days on the sand are done, and for improving the long-term health and growth of the sport well into the future by creating new playing opportunities in the U.S.

The three-time Olympic gold medalist absolutely expects to go out with another gold around her neck from the 2020 Games after she and partner April Ross wound up with bronze at Rio in 2016, a heartbreaking disappointment that still stings for Walsh Jennings yet fuels her at the same time.

“I haven’t shouted it from the mountaintops,” Walsh Jennings said Thursday of her career timeline in a wide-ranging interview with The Associated Press.

It may sound like a daunting task ahead: Walsh Jennings will turn 42 during the next Olympics. She has yet to settle on a partner, after she and Nicole Branagh split last month, though she has narrowed down her choice to two women. She is also coming off a pair of surgeries last year on her right shoulder and left ankle.

Just three weeks ago she began using the shoulder to hit the ball with her usual power and motion.

“I have no partner. I just came off two surgeries, and I know I’m going to win gold in Tokyo,” she said emphatically of her Olympic hurrah despite her share of lows in recent years. “… It makes this one and this journey that much more meaningful.”

Back home in the Bay Area to promote her upcoming beach volleyball extravaganza — “it’s a movement” she says — to be held at the San Jose Earthquakes’ Avaya Stadium in late September.

The “p1440” event featuring volleyball, health and wellness resources and opportunities, music, kids’ experiences and much more will go Sept. 28-30. Tickets went on sale Thursday, and additional events are scheduled for Las Vegas, San Diego and Huntington Beach this year and four more cities in 2019.

Walsh Jennings and husband Casey are committed to living each day to the fullest, all 1,440 minutes, inspiring the name.

“It’s all about living in the moment,” she said. “I certainly need to practice what I preach. It’s knowing what I want in life.”

They have long wanted to have their own academy, and now p1440 will combine a competition environment with opportunities for personal development no matter someone’s fitness level or physical challenge with the support of sports psychology and a technology platform and educational tools.

Walsh Jennings is striving to be her best every day and is driven to “live in my strengths,” whether that means being present for her husband and three children, dealing with her failures as well as her triumphs, or remembering to take a moment each morning and night to remind herself what she is most grateful for in her life.

After failing to win gold in Rio, Walsh Jennings struggled to find her top form because she was “living in fear on the court.” Even after earning bronze in ’16, she carried the weight of her defeat with her for months and years. That had never happened before.

Now, at last, she has come through that. With help from those close to her each step of the way, of course.

“We are pure positivity,” she said. “I really do believe happiness is a choice. I really believe staying positive is a choice.”

She had a falling out with the Association of Volleyball Professionals at the end of 2016 and has since ventured out on her own by taking on the formation of p1440 with huge aspirations of making it stick as a viable option for professionals.

Walsh Jennings insists volleyball can be a sport that has a far greater reach than just the every-four-years Olympic chase when people tend to tune in to see one of the Games’ most popular events.

That’s why Walsh Jennings believes she still has so much to give in beach volleyball and far beyond.

“I think I would have retired if we won gold in Rio,” said Walsh Jennings, who first hinted at one more Olympic run in December 2016, then said in April that 2020 would be her final Games. “This is my platform. I’m not done with my platform. That loss is going to serve me in so many different ways.”

Losing in Rio while “performing terribly” has changed Walsh Jennings. She has learned from it and become better for it.

“It’s so liberating when your weaknesses are exposed,” she said, “when you live your worst nightmare and survive.”

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

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49-year-old Olympic beach volleyball champion plays first event in 10 years

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Eric Fonoimoana, a 49-year-old who earned 2000 Olympic beach volleyball gold, played his first pro tournament since 2008 at the AVP stop in Hermosa Beach, Calif., this week.

Fonoimoana teamed with Jeremy Casebeer, who sought a last-minute sub for his injured partner, Reid Priddy, a 40-year-old who earned Olympic indoor gold at Beijing 2008 and Priddy’s injured replacement, Matt Olson.

Casebeer called Fonoimoana on Wednesday to ask if he would play, two days before the tournament.

“I was like, what? You sure you got the right number?” said Fonoimoana, who had never teamed with Casebeer but knew him a little bit from beach volleyball circles.

Fonoimoana, who still plays recreationally to stay in shape, signed up.

“I do play still at a high level, but more than anything my body’s healthy, which it’s been like four years since I could actually say that,” said Fonoimoana, who underwent left and right knee surgeries and rotator cuff surgery, as well as stem-cell and PRP knee injections until finding a balance that allowed him to jump and land on the sand. “It was a chance to see if I could still take it on and compete at that level.”

The pair won their first match over Bobby Jacobs and Michael Boag 21-16, 21-14 before losing to 2008 Olympic champion Phil Dalhausser and Jason Lochhead 21-10, 21-12 and then dropping a relegation bracket three-setter.

“Fans were excited to see me get back out there,” Fonoimoana said. “My friends were excited to root me on and see if I could beat some of those guys.”

Lochhead is actually the coach of Dalhausser and Rio Olympic partner Nick Lucena, but Lucena is out injured, too.

Fonoimoana, who lives in Southern California and works in real estate, is open to playing a one-off tournament again. It would be reminiscent of Misty May-Treanor, who came out of a three-year retirement to play three AVP events between 2015 and 2016 with no intention of getting back on the international level.

“The issue for me is about the start, stop and recovery,” Fonoimoana said. “If it was to play one match at a high level, I know I can play at a high level. It’s diminishing returns as far as me being able to get back and warm up and recover at that same level.”

NBCSN airs the Hermosa Beach Open on Sunday night/Monday morning at 12 a.m. ET. Dain Blanton, Fonoimana’s 2000 Olympic gold-medal partner, is a reporter on the coverage.

Fonoimoana, nicknamed “The Body” for his tremendous physique before retiring, and Blanton had a stunning run to gold at the 2000 Sydney Games, the second edition of Olympic beach volleyball. Neither player had previously won an international tournament, and Fonoimoana never won another international event before retiring.

He keeps the gold medal in a safe deposit box, bringing it out for speaking events or to show younger players and students. Fonoimoana provided inspiration on the sand on Friday without wearing it.

“The thing I got most out of it is so many players, ex-players, the fans, they said, my gosh, you relay motivated me,” he said. “At this point in my carer or journey of life, it’s great to be a motivator again.”

MORE: Kerri Walsh Jennings looking for a new partner again

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