Last week, Kerri Walsh Jennings hit the sand in an FIVB World Tour event with new beach volleyball partner Nicole Branagh, marking the first time Walsh Jennings played with a new partner since she teamed up with April Ross in 2013.
Walsh Jennings and Branagh, who last played together in 2012, got together in May after Walsh Jennings and Ross split.
It’s a pairing of two women who are similar in age and lifestyle. Both are 38 years old and both have kids. Walsh Jennings has two sons and a daughter, ages 4 through 8. Branagh has two: a 3-year-old daughter and a 10-month-old son.
Both are also Olympians. Walsh Jennings won three Olympic gold medals with Misty May-Treanor (2004, 2008 and 2012) and a bronze medal with Ross (2016). Branagh made it to the quarterfinals at the Olympic Games Beijing 2008 and finished fifth with partner Elaine Youngs.
Here’s a look at the Walsh Jennings-Branagh partnership.
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How Did Their Partnership Come About?
In April 2017, Walsh Jennings and Ross — who won a bronze medal at the Olympic Games Rio 2016 — decided to go their separate ways. Although it was reported that Walsh Jennings’ contract dispute with the Association of Volleyball Professionals (AVP) drove the split, Walsh Jennings said it is also the nature of the sport.
“We were both looking in different directions,” Walsh Jennings said. “I know that both of us want to succeed, and in order to succeed, both partners need to be looking in the same direction. We didn’t have that anymore.”
This left Walsh Jennings in the market for a new partner.
In May, Walsh Jennings’ coach, Marcio Sicoli, invited Branagh to join a practice. Branagh had been practicing three to four times each week since the birth of her son last July but did not have a set partner. She has not competed in an FIVB event since August 2015.
The practice went well.
“I had chills for the entire two hours of practice when I was training with Nicole,” said Walsh Jennings. “It felt so exciting to be on the court with her. Our rhythm was really good.”
This was not the first time the women had been on the beach volleyball court together. They partnered in 2008 — shortly after Walsh Jennings won her second Olympic gold medal with May-Treanor — and won their first tournament together, the FIVB World Tour in Dubai in October 2008.
Then Walsh Jennings stepped off the court to start a family. Her first child was born in May 2009, then her second in May 2010. Five months later, she and Branagh were competing again. They finished fifth in a FIVB World Tour event in China. A week later, they won in Thailand.
“It was not hard to jump in there,” said Branagh of the practice in May. “I know what sets she likes. She knows my sets. So there’s some familiarity there.”
After that practice, Sicoli asked about her commitment level.
“If you’re looking for [a practice partner], I can probably come a couple times a week if you need someone until Kerri figures out what she’s doing,” replied Branagh.
But Sicoli wasn’t asking if she could practice with Walsh Jennings. He wanted to know if she could commit to being her partner.
Branagh said yes.
“I feel like it’s the right situation for me,” Branagh said. “I believe in our team, so that’s a big part of it too, to be able to believe that we can do well.”
But first, the two women sat down to talk about “what it would look like to play together,” said Branagh. In spring 2011, Walsh Jennings and Branagh had split after May-Treanor returned to the court to make a run for the 2012 Olympic Games.
Branagh understood that it was a business decision for Walsh Jennings to return to her partnership with May-Treanor. But it was still a hard blow. Without contracts between players, beach volleyball partnerships can sometimes change. But after talking through plans and expectations, Branagh is confident that she and Walsh Jennings have a plan “to keep this team going up and forward.”
What Does Each Player Bring To The Team?
Both Walsh Jennings and Branagh are 6-foot-2 and are physical players. They also have synergy on the court.
“Sports at their best are a dance,” explained Walsh Jennings. “And rhythm in volleyball is so important, and we have an inherent rhythm together.”
They are also like-minded, have similar work ethics and life values, added Walsh Jennings.
“All these intangible qualities enhance the physical assets that we have,” she said. “The whole scope of what we each bring to the table, we just fit.”
Walsh Jennings also likes the levity that Branagh brings to their partnership — “she’s funny.” And she appreciates Branagh’s consistency and high level of play.
For her part, Branagh appreciates how well the two communicate both on the court and off.
“It’s important to communicate with your partner, even if it’s about your set,” she said. “If you’re not getting the set you need, you can’t be afraid to say, ‘A little higher or whatever.’ You can’t take it personally.”
What Are Their Goals?
Walsh Jennings and Branagh began their season at the FIVB World Tour event in Croatia on June 27.
They are now competing at at the Gstaad Major, another FIVB World Tour event, in Switzerland on July 4-9.
Branagh listed the Long Beach Presidents Cup (July 12-16), then back to Poland for another FIVB World Tour event (July 19-23).
The 2017 FIVB Beach Volleyball World Championships in Vienna are next on the list (July 28-Aug. 5).
They also are considering the Swatch FIVB World Tour Finals in Hamburg, Germany, on Aug. 22-27.
Also on their agendas this season: Branagh signed the AVP contract, so must find a different partner to compete in those events. In early May, she finished ninth with Xi Zhang in the AVP Huntington Beach Open.
Walsh Jennings is also looking to build the game beyond her own competitions and help beach volleyball players earn a living at the sport. She and her manager, Leonard Armato, are collaborating with ESPN to create a beach volleyball showcase, which will be held during the 2017 Division I NCAA Women’s Volleyball Championship in Kansas City in mid-December.
Are The Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 In The Picture?
Although Walsh Jennings and Branagh have officially committed to play together just in 2017, both have the 2020 Games on their radar.
“Yes, we’re committed,” stated Walsh Jennings. “I’m just going to say that. We’re committed.”
Then she added that they are “committed 900 percent” for this season, then they will have “a candid conversation in the off-season and figure it out.”
“I’m assuming just because of everything I [said about our partnership] — our foundation of strength and synergy — that this is what we will do going forward to Tokyo, and that makes me incredibly excited,” said Walsh Jennings.
Tokyo would be Walsh Jennings’ sixth Olympic Games (she competed in the 2000 Sydney Games as part of the U.S. indoor volleyball team), and she will turn 42 during the 2020 Olympiad. It would be Branagh’s second trip to the Olympics. She will be 41 in 2020.
When asked about her plans for 2020, Branagh responded, “Yes, why not? I didn’t start off the year thinking that, but the opportunity presented itself.”
“It will be the first time traveling away from my kids,” she added. “I can ask Kerri for advice. I don’t think it gets any easier. But at least she’s been through it so I can talk to her about it and get some advice and help on that.
“And when we’re out there, it’s like we’re gone from our families, so let’s get out here and kick booty.”
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered four Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.