It was a moment of euphoria and triumph, bliss and spontaneity.
Kerri Walsh Jennings had just won her third consecutive Olympic women’s beach volleyball gold medal with partner Misty May-Treanor, and they were still celebrating on the sand at the Horse Guard Parade court in London when silver medalists April Ross and Jennifer Kessy approached with congratulations.
Embracing Ross, Walsh Jennings had an impulsive thought. Pulling her close, she whispered in Ross’ ear: “Let’s win gold in Rio.”
Ross was caught off guard, and Walsh Jennings surprised even herself. The comment wasn’t planned, but it felt right so she spoke her mind.
After all, May-Treanor had already announced that the gold-medal match would be her last competitive event — she had come back from retirement once, but this time it was for good — and Walsh Jennings would need a new partner.
“That’s how I felt, that’s how I feel, and that’s where we’re going,” Walsh Jennings said recently, reflecting on the moment.
An email exchange a few months later finalized the agreement. Ross, 31, would take May-Treanor’s position beside Walsh Jennings on the court, in the spotlight and as an ambassador for the sport.
But there were complications. Ross had already agreed to continue playing with Kessy, her longtime partner, for the professional season. And Walsh Jennings, 34, had her third child on the way.
Walsh Jennings asked Ross what would happen if Kessy decided to compete in the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro. Would that cause yet another shakeup?
There are no partnership contracts in beach volleyball, which can create tricky interpersonal dynamics. Walsh Jennings had already fumbled through a tough one two years earlier when May-Treanor renounced retirement and said she was coming back for a run in London.
Walsh Jennings had to tell partner Nicole Branagh that she was returning to her longtime teammate, and that their partnership was over.
“Horrible,” Walsh Jennings said of that situation.
She didn’t want that for Ross, or Kessy, who is slowing down to start a family but not retiring.
Ross was certain. The new power pairing was one that would last.
“It’s just like a change in anybody’s life,” Ross said. “A change of jobs, a change in a relationship. Change is hard and I expect it to be a growing experience.”
There will be comparisons of Ross with May-Treanor, of course, and there are some obvious similarities. For example, both starred at Newport Harbor High, where Ross followed May.
“We both grew up here, not really from wealthy families, in a wealthy area,” Ross said. “Both our moms had breast cancer, passed away from breast cancer.”
On the court, Ross will try to find the same chemistry and success that May-Treanor achieved with Walsh Jennings. In addition to those three gold medals, they had a record winning streak of 122 consecutive matches and 18 tournament titles from June 27, 2007, to Aug. 31, 2008.
Walsh Jennings and Ross played their first tournament together this month at the FIVB Gstaad Grand Slam in Switzerland, but they won’t start playing together full time until an AVP event in Santa Barbara, Sept 28-29.
Ross wanted some time for a final-hurrah tour with Kessy, who will be her partner at the ASICS World Series of Beach Volleyball in Long Beach this week. Walsh Jennings was set to compete with Whitney Pavlik but withdrew from the FIVB Grand Slam event because of an abdominal strain.
Walsh Jennings and Pavlik will still play together in the inaugural World Series Cup, but also playing in the Grand Slam event would have been too many matches with Walsh Jennings not at full strength.
In Gstaad, Walsh Jennings and Ross cruised through pool play with a 3-0 record before they were upended in the round of 16. One obvious adjustment they will have to make is that both Ross and Walsh Jennings are used to playing on the left side of the court. Walsh Jennings moved to the right, where she was attacked on nearly every serve.
In their loss, Ross said the team struggled to score on defense. She also said Walsh Jennings’ injury was a factor.
Walsh Jennings had no second thoughts. “I missed Misty every second when I was in Switzerland this last week,” she said, “but that doesn’t take away from how excited and wonderful I think April and I are going to be.”
Walsh Jennings said she was at about 70 percent of full speed at Gstaad because she hadn’t planned on returning to competition so soon. Had Kessy not been sidelined by hip and Achilles’ injuries, leaving Ross without a partner, Walsh Jennings would have continued training for Long Beach.
“I don’t know if she’d ever admit to it, but I dragged her back really early,” Ross said. “It was a testament to what a gnarly competitor she is, but I think we weren’t 100% by any means.”
Kessy said learning to perform seamlessly as a team takes time no matter how high-caliber the individual players are. “I know both of them well, but you can take two of the best players and they play terrible together,” she said. “So you honestly have no idea” how quickly they will jell. “I think it’s going to take some time.”
Ross and Walsh Jennings plan to play the last two AVP events, in Santa Barbara and Huntington Beach, and the last two FIVB Grand Slams of the season in Beijing and Sao Paulo, Brazil.
Walsh Jennings said that would allow them to head into the off-season with a decent feeling of how they stack up.
One year ago, Walsh Jennings surprised Ross with her on-court proposal. Three years from now, it shouldn’t surprise anyone to see them making a gold run in Rio.