By Mark Lamport-Stokes
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – The omens look bright for Kerri Walsh Jennings as the American beach volleyball champion targets a rare fourth consecutive Olympic gold medal in Rio de Janeiro after producing barnstorming form on the 2016 AVP Tour.
Walsh Jennings and her new partner, April Ross, have gone unbeaten on the Association of Volleyball Professionals circuit this year, extending their impressive run together to 56 consecutive matches and 11 successive titles.
This can only augur well for the 37-year-old Californian, who is nicknamed ‘Six Feet of Sunshine’, as she aims to join an exclusive and very small Olympic club after undergoing her fifth shoulder surgery in September.
Should Walsh Jennings mine gold in Rio, she would emulate long jumper Carl Lewis and discus thrower Al Oerter, both fellow Americans, as the only athletes who have won four consecutive Olympic golds in the same individual event.
“I don’t know if I can even put what it would mean into words,” Walsh Jennings told Reuters about the prospect of landing a fourth gold medal.
“To prove to myself I had it in me, to represent the U.S. and to share that experience with my family would mean the world.
“I was pregnant with my third, Scout, during the last Olympics in London and it’d be incredible to have her see what she was a part of and the boys are older now so it’d be special for them too.”
Walsh Jennings, who has two sons and a three-year-old daughter, won gold at the 2004 Athens Games, the 2008 Beijing Games and the 2012 London Olympics alongside Misty May-Treanor.
HARD WORK PAYS OFF
With May-Treanor announcing her retirement shortly after the London Games, Walsh Jennings paired up with Ross the following year and, following a lot of hard work in practice, they have certainly flourished together.
“When you start playing with a new partner, you have to learn their strengths, weaknesses, how you can support one another,” Walsh Jennings said via email.
“With my shoulder, we’ve had to make some adjustments and April has been awesome. She is such a strong athlete and I knew I wanted to play with her.
“Back in London in 2012, playing against each other in the gold medal match, we shook hands and I was the one to tell April, ‘Let’s go win gold at Rio’. A little less than a year later, we became official partners.”
Asked how her new partnership matched up to her pairing with May-Treanor, Walsh Jennings replied: “It’s tough to compare. Misty was an amazing partner. We went through a lot together, personally and professionally, and had our run of success.
“April and I are in our third year playing together and we’re feeling really good. My shoulder injuries and surgery late last year were a bit of an obstacle but we’ve found an incredible rhythm.
“We both want gold in Rio so bad and we are in it to win it. Sharing that and competing well pushes us even more. It’s been a wild and exciting year so far and I can’t wait to see what we can accomplish over the next few months.”
Asked if she had suffered any setbacks following her shoulder surgery, Walsh Jennings replied: “Not really. Mentally, it’s been a bit challenging, because you just never know how you’re going to recover and this was a new injury for me.
“On the court, I’ve had to adjust to use my left arm more to give my right shoulder a break and April has been great at helping me compensate,” said Walsh Jennings, who is a brand ambassador for Blue Diamond Almond Breeze.
“Other than that, coming back since the surgery has been smooth. We’ve both stayed really positive and honestly, I think it was a blessing in disguise – when you tackle obstacles like that, you see how truly strong you are.”
(Editing by Frank Pingue)