Kerri Walsh Jennings is back...with a new partner
When Kerri Walsh Jennings and April Ross look back at the Gold Medal Match at the London Olympics, they both recall one thing -- the intensity as they faced off on opposite sides of the net.
Though the two Southern California natives play on the same team now, it was not that way in London. Walsh Jennings and Misty May-Treanor were playing in their third-consecutive Olympic Gold Medal Match. April Ross and Jen Kessy were just making their Olympic debut as the tournament's fourth-seeded team.
"We did actually notice that Misty and Kerri were on the other side of the bracket," Ross said. "There was a chance we would meet in the Gold Medal Match. But, at the same time, I was like, 'The chance of that happening, that we both get there, it would be crazy.'"
Kessy and Ross' performance in the semifinals made "crazy" a reality. The U.S. women beat top-seeded Brazilians Larissa and Juliana 15-21, 21-19, 15-12, earning them a spot in the final against compatriots Walsh Jennings and May-Treanor.
"When we finally both got there, it was the coolest thing in the world just to have both U.S. teams in the Gold Medal Match," Ross said. "I felt like we were doing what we were supposed to do for our country, and I definitely wanted to win."
In front of a packed stadium in London's Horse Guard Parade, Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings won the match 21-16, 21-16, securing their third-consecutive gold medal.
Ross and Walsh Jennings' Olympic rivalry did not last long. 36 minutes, to be exact. As the two teams congratulated each other after the match, Walsh Jennings whispered something in Ross' ear.
"We wanted to congratulate them," said Ross. "So I was giving Kerri a hug, and she leans in, and she says, 'Okay, let's go get gold in Rio.' And it caught me off guard for sure, but, of course, my immediate reaction was, 'Yeah, of course, like let's do it. I'm in.'"
"That was the start, as far as I'm concerned, of the next quadrennial of this whole journey," Walsh added. "We didn't have that follow-up conversation for I think almost two months and she reached out and yes -- it was like 'Let's do this. You want it. I want it. Let's go.'"
Walsh Jennings' partner Misty May-Treanor was set to retire after London. Ross' partner Jen Kessy was going to take time off to start a family, though they hadn't explicitly discussed changes to their partnership after the Games.
"I didn't say who I was going to play with right away," Ross said. "I kind of broke it down slowly across several months, and then when the time came, I said, 'I think Kerri and I are going to play together,' and of course, Jen knew that from the very beginning. Even without me saying it. Kerri's on the top of everyone's list who's looking for a partner, so I don't think she was shocked."
Ross and Kessy played their last match together at the 2013 Berlin Grand Slam before Kessy took a break from the sport to have a daughter. She knew she wanted to return to the sand but didn't plan to play internationally or make a run for the 2016 Olympics. She reportedly changed her mind after watching one of the top international tournaments, the World Series of Beach Volleyball, in Southern California. In late 2014, she reached out to up-and-coming player Emily Day to form a partnership and attempt to qualify for the Games a second time.
"On the court it's going to be interesting," Kessy told OlympicTalk in Nov. 2014. "It never will get bad. It will be interesting because we do know so much about each other that it'll be fun."
Walsh Jennings and Ross made their debut together at Gstaad Grand Slam in July 2013. They won their first international gold at the Sao Paulo Grand Slam later that season. Together they hold seven international gold medals.
"It's ride or die, like us against the world," Ross said. "We're doing whatever it takes to beat the other team. And so I'm part of that fierceness now."
The Rio Games will be Walsh Jennings' fifth Olympic appearance, her fourth in beach volleyball. She plans on winning her fourth gold medal with Ross. "You know, she's pissed off she won a silver and she wants to win gold and then I want to win gold with her," Walsh said.
"It would mean a lot. It would validate all the hard work," added Ross. "I mean we've put in a ton of hard work the last four years. So to get there and prove that you're the best in the world, that's kind of what I've been working for for so long."
Kerri Walsh Jennings and April Ross are currently the top-ranked U.S. women's team. In order to qualify, they must participate in at least 12 FIVB events and be one of two top U.S. teams by June 13.