RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil - April Ross and Kerri Walsh Jennings steamrolled to a gold medal at the FIVB World Tour Rio Grand Slam, their first gold since 2014.
Last time out, Ross and Walsh Jennings played at the FIVB Rio Open in Sept. of 2015, finishing ninth. Now months removed from Walsh's shoulder surgery and a brief off season, the duo put to rest any doubt that they are making a push for the 2016 Olympics. And fast.
Sunday's gold medal in Rio was their ninth podium finish together and seventh gold. This week they surpassed the 100-win mark as a team (102-19) and improve to 7-0 in 2016. The biggest achievement coming with the gold medal may be the 800 Olympic-qualifying points they pick up for their first-place finish.
"This whole Tour is very strong and it's going to require us to play our best every tournament," said Walsh. "It was an amazing start for us and we want to keep riding high and stay focused and present."
The pair won their pool 3-0 and advanced directly to the second round. There they swept Brazil's Maria Antonelli/Liliane Maestrini 21-16, 21-14. In the third round, Walsh and Ross dropped the first set to four-seed Laura Ludwig/Kira Walkenhorst of Germany only to flip the switch in the second stanza and floor it home in the third, 16-21, 29-27, 15-6.
In the semifinals, they once again dropped the first set, 9-21, but rallied against Germany's other women's team, Karla Borger/Britta Buthe to win after the final two frames 21-17, 15-10. Riding the momentum from the night before, the gold-medal match looked in sync and routine as they clicked for a 21-15, 21-13 victory against Poland's Monika Brzostek/Kinga Kolosinska.
"I feel like we are better now," Walsh continued. "My injury brought us closer and it elevated our play in different ways. [April] was always a beast and she became super amazing. April is one of the best in the world easily. The work she put in during the off-season makes her the best in the world in my opinion. I learned a lot from my injury. It's rewarding to take something challenging and turn it into a positive."
Sunday's finish ended the gold medal drought for the pair, who last captured first place at the Long Beach Grand Slam in July of 2014. With a stunted season in 2015, it was the first time Walsh Jennings didn't win a gold on the World Tour. To start the year and resume Olympic qualification with a top finish is crucial for the two.
"That was a really good finish for us," Ross added. "We still need four tournaments and we're not going to let off the gas. To be here in Copacabana and play here on the sand we will play on during the Olympics means a lot."
The next time the two hope to return to Rio de Janeiro, they'd be playing for gold at the Olympics.
Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena finished fifth after losing, 21-19, 21-18, to eventual winners Bartosz Losiak/Piotr Kantor of Poland in the quarterfinals. Heavy rain and lightning began at the beginning of the match as both teams struggled with the conditions, leading to errant mistakes. It is just the second time in Olympic qualification that Dalhausser and Lucena finished in the Top 5 but did not medal.
Jake Gibb/Casey Patterson and Lauren Fendrick/Brooke Sweat advanced out of pool play to the first round where both teams picked up wins. Gibb/Patterson lost in the second round to the Netherlands, while Fendrick/Sweat fell is a close three-setter to Germany, 20-22, 21-13, 17-15. Both teams tied for ninth, respectively.
WEEK IN REVIEW
FIVB Rio Grand Slam
- Kerri Walsh Jennings/April Ross won gold, their first since July 27, 2014; first in 2016 Olympic qualification
- Phil Dalhausser/Nick Lucena finished fifth, their ninth Top 5 finish in Olympic qualification
- Jake Gibb/Casey Patterson tied for ninth, their 10th Top 10 finish in Olympic qualification
- Lauren Fendrick/Brooke Sweat tied for ninth, their best finish since the Olsztyn Grand Slam, where they also tied for ninth
- Theo Brunner/Sean Rosenthal tied for 25th after going 1-2 in pool play
- Jennifer Kessy/Emily Day tied for 25th following a 1-2 finish in pool play
- Eliminated in qualification were: Ryan Doherty/John Mayer, Tri Bourne/Mark Burik, Lane Carico/Summer Ross
- Eliminated in country quota were: Jennifer Fopma/Brittany Hochevar
UPCOMING EVENTS | Add to your schedule
March 15-20 Vitoria Open
April 4-8 Doha Open (Men only)
April 12-17 Xiamen Open
April 19-24 Fuzhou Open
April 26-May 1 Fortaleza Open
FIVB Walsh Jennings: No ordinary comeback
NBC Sports Kerri Walsh Jennings, April Ross win first title since July 2014
Bay Area News Group Local sports digest: Walsh Jennings, Ross win Rio beach volleyball event
FIVB Unusual No. 101
Globe Sports Loyola coach the U.S. team and promises "barbecue week" by the glass in Rio
FIVB From the brink of elimination to netting a quarter-final berth
San Jose Mercury News Kerri Walsh Jennings and April Ross advance at Rio Grand Slam beach volleyball tournament
Amo Volei De Praia Walsh/Ross shines and wins the gold in the river
FIVB Dalhausser and Lucena prevail in lull before the storm
Amo Volei De Praia Walsh and Ross are coming, warns coach
Amo Volei De Praia With emotion, favorites teams advance in Rio
FIVB Firm hands of Sicoli helping Ross and Walsh towards Rio dream