NEW YORK – Kerri Walsh Jennings unceasingly zipped the ball past her opponents with ease en route to winning the AVP New York City Open alongside partner April Ross on Sunday, proving she’s still among the most dominant women’s beach volleyball players in the world heading into her fifth Olympic Games.
Three-time Olympic champion Walsh Jennings and Olympic silver medalist Ross defeated Americans Lane Carico and Summer Ross in straight sets (21-16, 21-18) in the 55-minute final televised live on NBC along the Hudson River’s Pier 26.
“It’s such a beautiful site with the backdrop. I’ve never played anywhere more spectacular,” Walsh Jennings said. “In my heart, and with all due respect, I think we can just dominate, dominate, dominate. But some of the scores were really close, as people have nothing to lose against us."
It was the 50th consecutive match win and 10th straight AVP tour title victory for Walsh Jennings and Ross — just what they needed to keep the momentum rolling into the Rio 2016 Olympic tournament.
Yet Walsh Jennings, towering over her opponents at 6-foot-2, still found parts of her game she insisted on fine-tuning.
“We have to sharpen up,” she said, then pausing for a moment, refraining to reveal exact details that would verbally expose her weaknesses to opponents. “We have to learn to create our rhythm in every situation. Basically, if we take care of the ball, we’re golden.”
Walsh Jennings’ Road to Rio 2016 has differed drastically from her past Olympic appearances in beach volleyball, most notably because she’s playing with a new partner.
It will be her first Olympic appearance with the big-serving Ross after previously winning three gold medals with Misty May-Treanor, who retired following the London 2012 Games after having only lost one Olympic set during 11 years in tandem with Walsh Jennings.
Four-time USA Volleyball Female Beach Athlete of the Year Ross was on the opposing side of the net in London, taking silver with teammate Jennifer Kessy.
“I don’t want it to be the same as when I played with Misty, and April didn’t want me to fill Jen’s shoes,” Walsh Jennings said. “We’ve totally been molding ourselves together. On the court, we’re both fiery. But she definitely internalizes everything more, and I’m more like ‘Bliyah!’”
While last September Walsh Jennings underwent her fifth shoulder surgery — which is old hat to her by now — she hasn’t had to come back from pregnancies for the majority of this Olympic cycle.
She gave birth to two children in the lead-up to London 2012 Games and was then five-weeks pregnant during those Games. Raising three kids on the Road to Rio has given her more to play for than she’s ever had before.
“Every mold has been broken for the pregnant women,” she said. “We’re no longer delicate flowers, we’re warriors. We have to be smart and mindful every single day, but I was so empowered while I was pregnant. I feel like I became stronger with each pregnancy, and I don’t feel like you have to stop chasing your dreams because you have a baby; after that they just get better.”
Walsh Jennings is “super laser-focused” at this point, no longer thinking about surgery, pregnancy or — despite the fact that she’ll turn 38 in Rio — age as a hurdle to the podium.
She and Ross have one FIVB and two AVP tournaments left before they head home for the month prior to the Games. Walsh Jennings will spend those final four weeks with her family, the stimulus driving her to chase an unprecedented fourth gold medal.
“It’s go home, get dirty, get hungry and just get tough,” Walsh Jennings said. “I’m looking forward to everything in Rio, from being in the Opening Ceremony to being in the village to winning eight matches to winning a gold medal.”
Dalhausser And Lucena Win, Turn Attention To Rio
Rio 2016 Olympic qualifiers Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena won the men’s bracket of the AVP New York City Open, beating Jeremy Casebeer and Sean Rosenthal in straight sets (21-19, 21-12) in what marked their fifth AVP championship match appearance.
The duo played with each other at the beginning of their careers from 2003-2005 and then went their separate ways until last year, when they teamed up again and qualified for Rio.
“It’s great to win in the best city in the world,” said Dalhausser, a 2008 Olympic gold medalist. “A year ago, if you told me I was going to be the No. 3 seed in the Olympics, I’d have thought you were crazy. But here we are the No. 3 seed, and now we have some momentum with this win.”
Stuart Lieberman covered Paralympic sports for three years at the International Paralympic Committee, including at the London 2012 and Sochi 2014 Games. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.