Kerri Walsh Jennings and April Ross have officially been playing beach volleyball together for less than a year. But in 2014, they had the best record of any women’s team.
After a 22-20, 21-17 victory over Whitney Pavlik and Heather Hughes at the AVP Championships in Huntington Beach, California, on Sunday — their seventh consecutive AVP win — Walsh Jennings and Ross kissed the overall AVP trophy. Of the nine AVP events that they have entered in the past year, they have won eight.
Also this season, the duo has won four FIVB Beach Volleyball World Tour tournaments, more than any other team.
“To have accomplished it and done it together as a new team, chasing big dreams, it feels really good, and it’s something I definitely want to celebrate and acknowledge,” Walsh Jennings told the Torrance, California, Daily Breeze after winning in Huntington Beach.
So what has made the team of Walsh Jennings and Ross so good, so quickly? After all, it’s only been two years since Walsh Jennings won her third Olympic gold medal with Misty May-Treanor, and Ross took the silver with Jennifer Kessy at the London 2012 Olympic Games.
It was at those Games where Walsh Jennings, now 36, first broached the idea of teaming with Ross, 32, whose resume includes the first U.S. woman to be named FIVB Rookie of the Year (in 2007) and a world championship title in 2009.
Both women knew that their partners were retiring from beach volleyball shortly after the London Games, and Walsh Jennings was considering who might best fill the role of new teammate.
In Ross, she saw someone whose skill set complemented hers. But she also saw more.
“I put a premium on the intangibles, like the work ethic, the competitive drive, the desire to be great, and the grit,” said Walsh Jennings by phone from Huntington Beach. “April has so much heart when she plays. She attacks volleyball, and she loves it.
“I really wanted to play alongside someone like that because I had that with Misty for so long. I knew moving forward, we were going to be up against this amazing challenge. I really wanted someone who had that extra something where she’s going to run through fire to get what she wants, and she’s going to be my partner through thick and thin, and April has all that in spades.”
As Walsh Jennings hugged Ross after the gold-medal match in London, she said, “Now let’s go win Rio.”
For her part, Ross was stoked that the three-time gold medalist wanted to team with her. If you’re going to switch partners, why not start at the top?
Since teaming with Walsh-Jennings, Ross has come to see what the four-time Olympian brings to the volleyball court.
“Kerri brings just an unfailing energy,” Ross said. “She’s always ready to go regardless of how she feels physically, mentally or emotionally. As soon as we step on the court, she wants to win. She’s ready to go. That’s hard to do. We have a really grueling schedule, and we travel a lot. Just to be ready to go all the time, not very many players can do that. She definitely invigorates me in that way, and I think that’s a huge asset to have on our team.”
They first partnered during the summer of 2013, just a few months after Walsh Jennings gave birth to her third child, daughter Scout. But the two didn’t begin playing seriously until October 2013, when they won the final two stops on the FIVB World Tour — in Brazil and China. Then, back on home turf in California, they made it to the semifinals at the AVP Championships.
They began the 2014 season in late April on a good note — winning the first FIVB World Tour event, the Fuzhou Open, in China.
Walsh Jennings wasn’t surprised that she and Ross were successful from the start. The respect that they have for each other as players was a good foundation on which to build. They also both were ready to go from their first match together.
“There was no wishy-washy period where we were like this is what we want,” said Walsh Jennings. “It was let’s dive headfirst from the start.”
But a few days after the Fuzhou Open, they didn’t advance out of the third round at the FIVB Shanghai Grand Slam. It was the first of three times that they would finish ninth this season on the FIVB World Tour — “which makes us want to throw up,” confessed Walsh Jennings.
But both women see these losses as crucial to their long-term success.
“People are exposing our weaknesses, and that’s such a blessing ultimately, if you let it be,” said Walsh Jennings.
With the support of her husband, Casey, Walsh Jennings is shooting for her fifth Olympic Games. She has stayed with it because she loves the sport of beach volleyball and wants to see how good she can be.
“There’s a really amazing volleyball player in me, and I want to see what that looks like,” she said with a laugh.
This weekend, the duo is in Sao Paulo, Brazil, for the FIVB Brazil Grand Slam — their final event of the season — where they will encounter an atmosphere similar to what they can expect at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.
In Sao Paulo, they will likely face the Brazilian duo of Larissa Franca and Talita Antunes. Also a new team this season, Larissa and Talita, as they are known, have won the last two FIVB Grand Slam events. With former partner Juliana Silva, Larissa won the Olympic bronze medal in London.
“It’s great that we had early success,” said Walsh Jennings. “But we want late success more than anything.”
“We want to become great,” she added. “That’s the mission for next year. Then we want to become even greater in 2016.”