In Rio's hottest sport, beach volleyball, Kerri Walsh Jennings has been called the greatest of all time. Why?
Three Olympic gold medals? That's just jewelry.
One hundred thirty-two victories? That's just bank.
The real answer is a little less obvious, unless you see her every day or have competed with and against her. Four people who have done just that explain Walsh Jennings' magic.
"No one works harder than Kerri Walsh," said Barbra Fontana, who spent 18 years on the pro beach circuit and who placed fourth at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Fontana lives in Manhattan Beach, California, where Walsh trains, and sees her routinely.
"By that, I mean she gets up at 5:30, she meditates, she goes and trains volleyball, then she goes to the gym and weight trains, then she does brain training, then she does recovery, and she watches what she eats—with three children. Most athletes, to be honest with you, as they get older, they start cutting corners."
Walsh, a five-time Olympian vying for her fourth consecutive gold medal in Rio, turns 38 on August 15th.
It might surprise you to hear that at the top level, Fontana said, "not everybody is working that hard. People show up at the beach and they half-bake their practice. Are they concentrating the whole time? Are they pushing 110 percent the whole time? No! I train some of those people. They're trying, quote unquote. But when Kerri tries, she's ALL in. It's the same thing that separated Holly McPeak. Holly, in her day, worked harder than anybody else. But Holly was under-sized. She was 5-7."
McPeak, the winningest woman in beach volleyball (from 2004 to 2007), said the same thing in a separate interview.
"Nobody thought I could win, so I had to outwork and out-will everybody. Kerri has the same will and desire that I had—in a quick and athletic 6-foot-3 body," said McPeak. "It wasn't fair. Seriously."
Killer Combo: Speed + Height
"When I was growing up in the sport, you didn't make people 6-3 who had quick feet, too; slow feet was the great equalizer,'" said McPeak, a three-time Olympian who lost the 2004 Olympic semifinal to Walsh Jennings and Misty May-Treanor and took bronze. "I used to affectionately call her 'Freak of Nature.' Kerri is 6-3, has quick feet, can sprint to save a play, and, on top of it all, is deadly competitive. It's the killer combination."
One thing McPeak didn't mention? Walsh Jennings also has quick eyes.
"She can track human body movements really, really well," said Marcio Sicoli, Walsh Jennings' coach since 2010. "We test that. We have 'blind drills.' I'll put a cloth on the net so she can't see any movement, then suddenly the ball will show up with the athlete and she needs to make a play. If we do ten balls, at five balls in, she knows already where the opponent's going to go. We take her reaction time to measure improvement. We also did a vision test this year with our doctor. It was a new approach. Depth perception [was normal] but she was above average on tracking objects."
Corrected arm swing
Fontana also observed that Walsh Jennings' form has improved over time. "She's got the best arm swing I've seen in her entire career," she said. "In the past, she wouldn't line up correctly all the time. She would swing outside of her body, which makes the ball come with less pace and wreaks havoc on your shoulder."
Worth noting: Walsh Jennings has had five surgeries on her right shoulder, most recently in September 2015.
"On the beach," Fontana continued, "it's very difficult to be in the right location for your swing because the ball is moving in the wind or the wind picks up, or if your partner isn't setting a ball that goes straight up and straight down that you can predict, then you may be swinging full force on a ball that's outside of your shoulder girdle.
"This year, she's really focused on getting her feet to the ball and connecting it right in front of her shoulder—and she snaps high through the ball. That puts more pace on it. It's higher and harder to defend."
She has the range. Photo by Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports
After 28 years, though, adjustments like correcting one's shoulder line-up don't come easy. "That is tedious work," Fontana said. "That's just drill after drill of feet-to-the-ball, feet-to-the-ball, feet-to-the-ball. It's not sexy. It's not fun. Kerri Walsh will do the tedious work."
Bottom line: "She's still trying to get better. And she could still be better," Fontana said. "Beach volleyball has so many layers and such a heavy mental component that it's a constantly moving target."
In this Olympic cycle, Walsh Jennings is receiving more serves than she did with May-Treanor, who retired in 2012. "Misty was getting 80 percent, and Kerri 20 percent," said Sicoli. "Now it's more 50-50."
How does that change things?
"When you receive more, it means your partner will probably set, and you'll hit. So you're making two actions," he explained. "You're more in charge to score points. Plus you need to serve, and you have to play defense. You need to be in way better shape for that because you're jumping every play."
McPeak, Fontana, and Sicoli all said—unprompted—that Walsh Jennings is in perhaps the best shape of her life.
"She is the strongest physically that I've ever seen her—ever!" McPeak said, "And I saw her since she came out of college [in 2000] playing on the indoor national team. She's always ripped, but she's more muscular everywhere. She just looks strong—like she could get through anything."
Moved Right and Excelled
Walsh Jennings now plays on the right side of the court—something she had never done with May-Treanor, and which she volunteered almost immediately to do when paired with April Ross. It wasn't as simple as just moving a few yards over, of course.
To receive the serve on the right, Sicoli explained, she needed more power on her leg closest to the sideline, which meant strengthening her right leg and right hip to pivot.
"Also, for the offense—when you are right-armed an on the right side, the ball will always travel a little longer and over your left shoulder [to reach your right arm] before you attack," he said. And that's not about patience. "It's all technical aspects and angles"—and footwork. "We've been fighting and working at getting better every day."
"The greatest thing about playing with her," Ross says, is that "she's so intense and so committed to getting better, and her standard of excellence is so high. I feel like we're free to push and go hard, and it's fully acceptable. I've been told I'm too intense, but to be out there with Kerry and see how intense she is, has allowed me to be myself and embrace that intensity and that drive."
Prime example: At the FIVB Grand Slam event in Long Beach, California, last August, about a month after Walsh Jennings had dislocated her right shoulder for the second time that season, Fontana said Ross "basically just decided: I'm going to figure out a way to win. It was the most impressive thing I've ever seen. She works the serve and gets a point. If she doesn't get a point on the serve, then she takes the ball at the ten- or 15-foot line and puts it down. I've never seen a female player do that. Not even Kerri Walsh. That's new territory. That's never been seen in women's or men's volleyball. It just shows her ability to mentally lock into the zone and say, 'My partner has a hurt shoulder, so she doesn't need to hit every ball because I'm gonna ... swing on two [translation: kill on the second hit]. I'm going for it.' And she went for it. So you've got a combination of two just powerhouse athletes."
Meanwhile, in that tournament, Walsh Jennings was hitting with her left hand. "I mean, I don't even know if I could hit the ball over the net more than three times with my left hand," McPeak said. "It was a really important event for them; they needed the Olympic qualifying points. So she taught herself, trained herself, and willed herself into that position. And Kerri was blocking balls—BLOCKING balls—overhead with a dislocated shoulder that she had to have surgically repaired [a few weeks later]. But the hitting and putting the ball away was awe-inspiring. And they got to the finals, losing to Larissa and Talita [of Brazil, 18-21, 16-21], who are their archrivals in Rio."
Got it? Good. Because Ross and Walsh Jennings' pool-play matches are on August 6th, 8th, and 10th on Copacabana beach. Quarterfinals begin August 14th. Medal matches are on August 17th.
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