RIO DE JANEIRO — Kerri Walsh Jennings and April Ross had a different medal in mind when they paired up four years ago.
“Let’s win gold in Rio,” Walsh Jennings told Ross when the two shook hands after the beach volleyball gold-medal match in London — where Walsh Jennings won her third consecutive Olympic gold medal with Misty May-Treanor and Ross earned silver with Jennifer Kessy.
But a tough semifinal last night kept them from the gold-medal match.
Instead, on a warm moonlit night on Rio’s Copacabana Beach, Walsh Jennings and Ross won an Olympic bronze medal.
“It feels like a gold,” Walsh Jennings said, still covered in sand. “Once you win the semifinal, the gold-medal match is easy. No disrespect to winning a gold medal; it takes everything you have. But you’re going to go home with a medal. The bronze-medal match is the gnarliest match I’ve ever played in my career because either you go home with a beautiful medal or you get nothing.”
To get that beautiful medal, they beat the top-ranked team of Larissa and Talita from Brazil (Larissa Franca Maestrini and Talita da Rocha Antunes are known by their first names), 2-1 (17-21, 21-17, 15-9).
The all-time leader in beach volleyball titles, Larissa, 34, is as much a beach volleyball icon as Walsh Jennings, especially in Brazil. She retired after winning the bronze medal at the London Games, but came back specifically to challenge Walsh Jennings for Olympic gold in Rio, her home turf (sand).
Instead, it was a battle for bronze, the world No. 1-ranked team versus the defending Olympic gold and silver medalists (gold for Walsh Jennings, silver for Ross). Coming to Rio, Walsh Jennings, 38, and Ross, 34, had lost to Larissa and Talita four times in five FIVB World Tour matches this year — most recently just five weeks ago at the Gstaad Open in Switzerland.
Worse, Walsh Jennings and Ross were devastated after their semifinal loss last night to the No. 2-ranked team, Agatha and Barbara, also from Brazil. Walsh Jennings didn’t sleep last night, and Ross spent much of the day in bed visualizing how she could motivate for the bronze-medal match.
Then their coach, Mario Sicoli, gave them a pep talk and told them that they were playing for more than themselves. They had to go out and make their families and their country proud.
“It hit the heart,” said Walsh Jennings. “He made it not about the match. He made it about going out there and doing our best. It took the pressure off. We always say we’re part of a tribe, and we are. I had a huge vision of an army behind us on the court. When we were introduced, I felt my kids, I felt my parents, I felt April’s family.”
But it took a game before they found their footing in the sand on Copacabana Beach. They played in front of a raucous crowd so loud that it drowned out the sound of the ocean waves crashing nearby — and that often booed when the Americans were serving. For every spike by Ross or Walsh Jennings, the Brazilians were there, keeping the ball aloft. Larissa and Talita won the first set 21-17, with Larissa serving three aces.
Ross and Walsh Jennings didn’t hear the boos though. They just felt the energy of the crowd. And in the middle of the second set, Walsh Jennings found her inner gnarly self. With the score at 13-14 in the Brazilians’ favor, Ross got a hand on a dig, but it sprayed wide. Walsh Jennings chased it into the banners, got it up, and they got it over. 14-14.
“That was the changing point of the match,” said Ross. “That was just a little bit of mojo we needed. But we seriously had to fight for every point after that as well.”
“It was new life winning that second set,” added Walsh Jennings. “I had no doubt that we were going to win.”
The third set was a true battle. Neither team wanted to go home empty-handed. But Walsh Jennings and Ross brought passion to their play, and it lifted them to the win.
“That’s quintessential Kerri,” said Ross, crediting her partner.
Walsh Jennings gave it right back, saying, “April won this tonight,” and crediting her partner’s relentless defense.
The bronze medal marked the end of a more-than-three-year journey for Walsh Jennings and Ross, who agreed to be partners at the end of the London 2012 Olympic Games but didn’t actually play together until summer 2013, after the birth of Walsh Jennings’ third child.
They were successful from the start. But their bid for Walsh Jennings’ fifth Olympic Games and Ross’ second looked in jeopardy after Walsh Jennings dislocated her right shoulder on May 27, 2015.
She continued to play last summer, serving underhanded — and she continued to dislocate it, getting it popped back in mid-match. She had to ensure that she and Ross would qualify for Rio. Then she had surgery in September. It was her fifth surgery on the same shoulder and a comeback at age 37 was not a sure bet.
Worried that their Olympic fortunes would not pan out, Walsh Jennings told Ross to find another partner. Ross wouldn’t even consider it.
"I wanted to go with Kerri or with no one," Ross told San Jose Mercury News.
With the help of trainers, masseuses, and her husband Casey, Walsh Jennings dove into rehab and reconditioning with the same passion that she spikes balls. By March, she and Ross won the Rio Grand Slam. They were on their way back to the Olympic Games — and to Copacabana Beach.
This was the first time since the 2000 Sydney Olympics that Olympic beach volleyball has been held on an actual beach — with sea mist rising behind the Olympic rings above the stadium. And it’s the first time since Sydney that Walsh Jennings has not won Olympic gold. In her Olympic debut at those Games, she finished fourth with the U.S. women’s indoor volleyball team.
Walsh Jennings had wanted to match basketball player Lisa Leslie: To win four consecutive gold medals in a team sport. To date, Leslie is the only American woman to have accomplished this feat.
But Walsh Jennings will cherish her bronze medal “times a million.”
“I’m so grateful for every gold medal, and I’m so proud,” she said. “The semifinal match in sports is really gnarly, just to put yourself in that position. But the bronze-medal match is times 10, so much harder.”
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn is in Rio covering her fourth Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.