Walsh Jennings returns to beach
LONG BEACH, Calif. -- Elite athletes don't get very far without a killer instinct. It's that intangible desire deep in an athlete's core that emerges in the great ones when the match is on the line. It's a willingness to beat an opponent into submission. It's a need to finish them off when they're on the ropes. It's the voice inside an athlete that says, "I will not lose. Not today."
On the day before her domestic debut in the World Series Cup, Kerri Walsh Jennings was still searching for her killer instinct. It was with her when she and longtime partner Misty May-Treanor won a record 112 matches in a row, a mark that most likely will never be broken. It was with her when the two of them won their first gold medal at the 2004 Athens Olympics and their second in Beijing four years later. It was with her when the pair achieved beach volleyball immortality with their third consecutive gold last summer in London.
But it was not with her now, as she ran through drills with her temporary partner, Whitney Pavlik, on a practice court just outside the main stadium. It wasn't with her for good reason. Because nothing destroys a killer instinct like a sweet, bouncing baby girl.
Just 15 weeks ago, Walsh Jennings and her husband, Casey, welcomed their third child and first daughter, Scout Margery, into the world. But the qualities that make Walsh Jennings a great and loving mother were now in conflict with the qualities that make her a great and nearly unbeatable athlete.
Walsh Jennings is the first to admit that it takes time to get that ruthlessness back. Losing the baby weight? No problem. She was back in a bikini in no time flat, just as she was after the birth of each of her boys. This time around, she trained smarter.
"I crushed my body with the first two pregnancies so I learned throughout every one," she said. "I feel stronger coming back from this one because I lifted a lot during pregnancy. But mentally, I don't have that killer in me yet, and that took a little while to develop after the boys as well. The killer in me is a little quieter right now."
Walsh Jennings certainly doesn't look the part. All smiles off the court, she greets the media, officials and event staff with hugs and is gracious with the gaggle of fans that follows her everywhere she goes. She is the epitome of her nickname, Six Feet of Sunshine.
It's not the most intimidating moniker an athlete has earned, but Walsh Jennings is about as fierce a competitor as anyone will see on the other side of a net. Even as she stands beside the practice court talking about the silencing of her inner killer, she speaks of all the winning she plans to do this season.
"I've wanted this my whole life truly," Walsh Jennings said of her newly expanded family. "I am truly living a dream. Now I just need to get all the icing on top and win all the medals and have so much fun."
After a very short pause, she qualifies the statement.
Walsh Jennings is and always has been about winning. That hasn't changed. Her ultimate goal is a fourth gold medal in Rio in 2016 with eventual partner April Ross. The two will join forces later this year, but, until then, Walsh Jennings will compete with Pavlik. They'll head out on the Association of Volleyball Professionals (AVP) Tour in two weeks, but Walsh Jennings' much anticipated debut came in Saturday's Cup exhibition, in which the two best American teams fought it out for a chance to take on the winner of the two best international teams.
"I will be nervous tomorrow to be playing in front of a lot of people," Walsh Jennings said Friday before Saturday's Cup match. "I just haven't competed, and when you compete at home, there's always much more anxiety because you can win or fail in front of your friends."
Walsh Jennings has no shortage of friends. She can't go anywhere without a trail of adoring fans. Heads turn when she walks by, young girls gasp and whisper. Crowds gather around her practice courts, male and female, young and old. Hers is a level of international celebrity that no beach volleyball player has ever achieved.
"It's really flattering, but it seems really silly to me," she says of the attention. "Misty and I have become household names and I embrace that. I love being an ambassador for the sport, but it's still pretty silly."
Silly or not, her many fans were out in droves again Saturday. As she walked on to the main court for warm-ups, the crowd erupted in cheers of support. Then it was time for battle.
Walsh Jennings and Pavlik won the first set but lost the second against London silver medalists Ross and Jen Kessy. Walsh Jennings and Pavlik led the deciding third set 9-2, seemingly on the way to an easy victory, but Kessy and Ross went on a 7-1 run to get themselves back into the game. When the set was on the line, Ross and Kessy sealed the victory.
After the loss, Walsh Jennings sat down to address the media. That familiar fire flashed behind her eyes. The killer instinct returned for the first time since the birth of her daughter.
"That loss is going to be with me for a while," she said. "Every time I hit the gym, every time I play on the sand, I'll feel that. That absolutely woke something up in me. That lit a fire for sure.
"Watch out, AVP."
Beverly Oden is a freelance writer based in Southern California. She played volleyball at Stanford, where she won a national title in 1992, and also represented the United States in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.