For Kerri Walsh Jennings, the pursuit of a fourth consecutive Olympic beach volleyball gold medal resumes on her home sand.
The international beach volleyball tour visits Long Beach, California, this week for the third annual World Series of Beach Volleyball. The FIVB Grand Slam event – meaning it offers double the qualifying points – is expected to be the last chance for the top Americans to improve in the Olympic standings at home.
”It’s so rad, and every year it’s gotten better and better,” Walsh Jennings said in a telephone interview as she rehabbed the separated right shoulder she injured in May and reinjured last month.
”I’m going to sleep in my bed the whole week, go down and play in the game and come home and have fun with my kids. That’s a gift,” said Walsh Jennings, who lives in nearby Manhattan Beach, California, and is partnered with 2012 silver medalist April Ross. ”And it’s the last Olympic qualifier in 2015 in the States.”
Leonard Armato, a former commissioner of the domestic beach volleyball tour, started the World Series of Beach Volleyball in 2013 when it had been a decade since the international tour had visited the United States. His vision: a tournament that not only provided a stage for the top players but celebrated the sport and the lifestyle that surrounded it.
The event attracted 36,000 fans over five days in 2013 and 50,000 last year, Armato said. This year, he said he expects ”another significant growth in attendance” of fans who are drawn to the beach and all it offers.
”Fans expect a fully integrated entertainment experience,” Armato said. ”We have to give people something they value, and that’s beautiful people in small amounts of clothing. But there’s also the aspirational nature of the environment. We’ve got this massive festival out there.”
This year, the musical festival will feature Adam Lambert and 10 other bands. In addition to the 2-on-2 beach volleyball – the format familiar to those who watch the Olympics – there will also be 4-on-4 and 6-on-6 events.
”You have a lot of different things to do, and you also have a lot of good volleyball to watch,” two-time Olympian John Hyden said. ”It’s more of a kick back atmosphere, where people are enjoying themselves, not just watching the volleyball. It’s not just one thing. There’s plenty of things to do.”
For Walsh Jennings, Ross and the other potential Olympians, the event provides a chance to earn points toward qualifying for the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro. (The FIVB schedule for 2016 has not been completed yet, but the qualification cutoff is in June – early in the beach volleyball season.)
”Everybody will have a chance to watch it on NBC and see how their Olympic hopefuls do,” Armato said. ”A really good finish here will put (Walsh Jennings) in a good position to qualify … Hopefully people will understand that, and go to cheer her on or watch on TV.”
Walsh Jennings and Ross are currently 30th in the FIVB women’s rankings; the top 16 will qualify for Rio. But the list is complicated by country quotas and the fact that the American pair, which has played in only four events, trails teams that have already used up as many as 10 of their 12 tournaments in which they accumulate points.
Despite Walsh Jennings’ injury, she and Ross are hoping to begin moving up the list this weekend, when their European, Asian and South American opponents are battling the jet lag that has long been a burden for the Americans.
”A lot of international players think it’s so far for them to travel to the U.S., which they don’t normally experience,” Ross said. ”For them to have to fly here, we kind of enjoy that.”