DiG Discussion with…
Kerri Walsh Jennings
Interview by Don Patterson
Tom Brady and Kerri Walsh Jennings have a similar sports history. The Patriots’ quarterback is 39; the three-time Olympic beach volleyball gold medalist is 38. Both played their high school sports in the same conference in the California Bay Area, Brady at Serra in San Mateo and Kerri at Mitty in San Jose. Both have achieved an unmatched level of success in their respective sports.
Here’s another similarity: neither plans on retiring anytime soon. Brady just led the greatest comeback in the history of the Super Bowl and says he’s having way too much fun to walk away. Kerri is fully committed to going after another gold medal at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics with beach partner April Ross.
Considering that top pro athletes are taking better care of themselves these days than ever before, there’s no reason to doubt that once-in-a-generation performers like Brady and Walsh Jennings can stay at the top into their 40s.
“There’s evidence of that everywhere,” Walsh Jennings says. “But I do think it’s up to the individual. I really believe that people retire when their heart is not into it anymore, especially the greats. And Brady’s heart is obviously in it a hundred percent. You watch him play, and it looks like he’s got five more years in him.”
For beach fans, the hope is that five more years are also doable for Kerri, whose 133 titles rank her No. 1 all-time in women’s pro beach volleyball. DiG caught up with her recently to talk about the season ahead, the state of the game and why switching back to the left side feels right.
DiG: On the subject of graceful aging, what are you doing to stay young?
K.W.J.: I’m really upping my meditation game. I’m putting a lot of focus on restorative and off-the-court activities, and I’m doing rehab in different parts of my body. I was a little bit broken in the lower half the last year, and I need to pay attention to it because my focus has been on my shoulder for so long. (She had surgery on her hitting shoulder in 2015 to repair a labrum that had torn off the bone.) My goal is to be an amazing mover. I feel if I can do that, my body will be able to withstand the rigors of travel and competing.
DiG: How do you feel?
K.W.J.: I feel really good. I’m not reinventing the wheel. I’m just trying to do things better and more mindfully. I’m scheduling two things a day, not three and four. Just in my brain alone, I feel like I’m happier and more at peace, which hopefully will translate on the court.
DiG: You’re back to playing the left side after playing on the right last quad. What went into that decision?
K.W.J.: I’m really excited for that. I feel like April and I are both capable of playing both sides, and we trained a lot doing both in the preseason. (At the first tournament of 2017, the FIVB season opener in Fort Lauderdale, Kerri played left and April played right. They finished fifth.) It’s time to grow. I don’t want to keep doing the same thing over and over the next four years. I want to max out and really work on my entire game, and I feel like I was pretty isolated and very specific the last couple of years with my shoulder (injury) and only blocking and doing certain things. So I’m excited to expand my repertoire.
DiG: A lot of people think you and April will be a stronger team with you on the left.
K.W.J.: That was true the last four years too, but it was a decision that we made, and I don’t know if it was made in haste or what, but that’s not why we lost the gold medal [Laughs]. But I think it’s really important to keep pushing yourself and be out of the box. I haven’t been on the left for four years, but in my mind it feels like home and it feels like I’m at peace.
DiG: There was a big meeting at your house in January where players gathered to discuss the future of the sport with business people from beach volleyball, including representatives from USAV, AVP and NVL. What are the biggest issues right now?
K.W.J.: After the Olympics last year, I thought, ‘What a great time for volleyball. Our sport is growing all across the board, indoor and beach.’ But the one place it’s not growing is the professional beach ranks, and that’s really disheartening. To me, the biggest issue is how factioned our sport is. Everyone is kind of hoarding over their little piece and they’re not willing to work together, and the athletes suffer because of it and the growth of the sport suffers because of it. That’s something I think we need to address. We need to have candid conversations and put things behind us so we can build a bridge and all grow together. Right now we’re just tearing the sport apart.
DiG: Are you optimistic that people can come together in a more united cause?
K.W.J.: Well, I’m an optimistic person, so I want to say yes. But there’s a lot of toxicity right now, a lot of he said/she said, and a lot of falsities. And I don’t even know to what end. It’s just crazy to me. I think there’s a lot of pettiness in our sport right now. And there’s a lot of fear, because it’s such a great product and we haven’t had the success that we all think we can have. So I understand the fear, but we’re going about it the wrong way. I think we really need to learn from history – and the world, really – and see that communication and working together is really important. You don’t need to be best friends but you need to have respect, and we don’t have that at all.
DiG: There was only one great American women’s team at the international level last quadrennial: you and April. Leading into past Olympics, there have been at least two teams – and sometimes three and four – that have gotten podium finishes. What’s needed to rebuild the depth of women’s beach in the U.S.?
K.W.J.: I think a strong domestic tour is really important. Casey (Jennings, her husband) said at the player meeting that this is the first time [Kerri] hasn’t won gold, and there’s a reason why. No one was barking at our heels. I took it personally, like, ‘Sorry, babe. Be nice. It still hurts [Laughs].” But it’s very true. In the past we’ve had to deal with Holly [McPeak] and Elaine [Youngs] and Nettie [Annett Davis] and Jenny [Johnson Jordan]. It was a deep tour. Now, the international tour is very deep, but we don’t play internationally every weekend. If we had that at home, oh my God, it’s game over. I think that’s why you see such sharpness with the Brazilians and even with the Germans. It’s their jobs, and they get paid, and they’re dedicated. They don’t have to do three other jobs to make it work. That’s why the domestic tour is so hugely important.
DiG: Sara Hughes and Kelly Claes are one young team that has really shown promise.
K.W.J.: I love Sara and Kelly. I think they’re great. They make my eyes water because they remind me of Misty and me to a certain extent.
DiG: And how’s life as a mom? (She and Casey have three kids: sons Joey and Sundance and daughter Scout.) You helping Joey with his math homework these days?
K.W.J.: I’m just in it. Joey had his open house [at school] and was so proudly showing us around. I’m able to pick up my kids and drop them off. I’m in the routine, which is a really beautiful thing. And doing that and also training, so it’s just a combination of the best things in life for me.