Kerri Walsh Jennings got to know April Ross while staring across the sand at her on beach volleyball courts around the world — including the Olympic final in London at the 2012 Games.
Now they are partners, trying to make it to the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro together.
”I feel like I’ve known her so well as a competitor. The personal side of her has been such a treat and joy to get to know because I never knew that side,” Walsh Jennings said last week as the two prepared for the AVP tour opener in St. Petersburg, Florida, this weekend. ”She brings me strength in different ways. I knew she was a warrior; I knew she was a worker. I didn’t know the heart behind her.”
As the world’s top beach volleyball teams get ready for the 2016 Olympics and the qualifying process that begins next year, players are shuffling partners in the hopes of making it to the podium in Rio. All four of the teams that represented the United States in London have broken apart as the players age and, sometimes, the partnerships just get old.
Beijing gold medalist Phil Dalhausser is playing with Sean Rosenthal, a pairing of the younger members of the two American men’s teams from the last two Summer Games. Todd Rogers, Dalhausser’s partner in Beijing and London, is playing with 29-year-old Theo Brunner. But, already 40, Rogers hasn’t committed to making a run at Rio.
On the women’s side, Misty May-Treanor’s retirement – she is expecting her first child next month – broke up the team that won three Olympic gold medals and left Walsh Jennings looking for a new partner. She found it across the court in Ross, 31, who with partner Jennifer Kessy lost in the London final, settling for silver.
”The hardest part about transitioning from Misty to April is just the bittersweetness of it. I miss Misty every day,” Walsh Jennings said in a telephone interview. ”Sometimes I get a tear in my eye, and sometimes it makes me giggle.
”But what a beautiful problem to have. We just shared so many memories. She was such a big part of so many things in the past.”
Beach volleyball partners are more like spouses than normal sports teammates, so part of forming a new pairing is making sure that the players can stand to spend all that time together as they practice and play and travel all over the world.
”Jen and I had great chemistry right off the bat. It was really comfortable. We had fun off the court and on the court. And I miss Jen, for sure,” said Ross, who is 31 and four years younger than Walsh Jennings. ”But I kind of like the fact that Kerri and I are a new team. It’s brought new life to everything. We’re so invigorated and ready to learn, get better at beach volleyball. There’s novelty, and there’s always excitement when you’re doing something new.”
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that they have been successful – so far. Last year, Ross and Walsh Jennings won two of the three international tournaments they played in together, and they won this year’s opener on the FIVB tour in Fuzhou, China, last month.
”That’s made the transition super smooth,” Ross said. ”I like that it sets the bar there and we know what we’re capable of.”
Along with the usual challenges of taking on a new teammate, travel partner and constant companion, Walsh Jennings and Ross had a problem: They were both accustomed to playing on the left side, and one of them would need to make a switch that’s akin to going from second base to shortstop.
”I raised my hands first, I guess,” Walsh Jennings said. ”I don’t think either of us wanted the challenge. To a certain extent, it was a little like when I first came out to the beach (from indoor volleyball). On the right side, things are just a little bit different: how you set, how I pass the ball. When things are great and smooth, I feel so good. When they’re not, I feel like I need to get out of trouble.”
She has a little bit of help on that: Her husband, Casey Jennings, is a right-sider.