COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. - USA Volleyball is marching towards an unprecedented year on the beach, led by one of the sport's most accomplished athletes, Kerri Walsh Jennings.
There are plenty of stories in sports where the champ has reigned completely and the feeling of certain success was amidst us. That certainty about Kerri Walsh Jennings may have slipped after an injury-riddled season last year, but back-to-back medal performances with April Ross to start the 2016 World Tour should put that to rest.
The 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro isn't just a big deal for the United States, but for the sport of beach volleyball as a whole. Team USA has six gold medals in the sport since its inception in 1996 – winning gold at every Olympics. Between Walsh Jennings and her former partner, Misty May-Treanor, they hold the distinction of being the most decorated beach athletes, for either gender.
No one had two gold medals before Walsh Jennings and May-Treanor did so in Beijing (2008) and no woman had three medals of any kind before they extended their streak to London (2012). As Walsh Jennings looks to qualify for Rio, her fifth Olympics, any podium finish would make her the most decorated athlete in beach volleyball. A gold would make her just the third American to ever win four gold medals in the same event for a team sport.
THE WORLD OF SPORTS WILL BE WATCHING
The world of sports will be watching Copacabana Beach to see history be written on August 17, the day of the women's gold medal match.
The road hasn't been the easiest, but it's not something Walsh Jennings is unfamiliar with. In 2015, she dislocated her right shoulder numerous times on the FIVB World Tour. It almost benched her and Ross from the Beach World Championships, which was the first opportunity for a country to qualify for the 2016 Olympics. The duo competed as the third seed, but finished ninth and watched the host country Brazil win it in both genders.
They followed with a silver in Long Beach, but couldn't string together another top-three finish in their last two tournaments together in 2015. Walsh Jennings underwent surgery on Sept. 10 for what was first characterized as a torn labrum and capsule. She explained her speedy recovery and return to competition seven months later due to that her "labrum tore off the bone, the labrum itself didn't tear."
It was her fifth surgery and it wasn't the first time the 37-year old athlete faced the situation ahead of the Olympics. She also had surgery prior to the Games in 2012, 2008 and the 2000 Olympics when she played for the indoor Women's National Team that finished fourth. Watching her today, she looks more ambidextrous as time goes, making her that much more deadly at the net. She's so natural swinging lefty now that neither she nor Ross really notice when it happens. It's become part of their arsenal.
Their season ended at the Rio Open in Sept. 2015 and fittingly began again in Rio at the Grand Slam in early March. They won gold and showed that even when fighting from behind, they're comfortable, calm and collected. In Walsh Jennings' mind, they're never out of the race and it shows. They followed with a silver medal at the Vitoria Open one week later, dropping the finale to Brazil's second overall team. Against Brazilians, she and Ross are 18-8 dating back to 2013. Of that, they're 3-1 against the 2015 World Champion team of Agatha Bednarczuk and Barbara Seixas.
The U.S. women won't only have to worry about Brazil, though. Germany is just as deep with talent as the host country, boasting four teams in the Top 15 rankings on the World Tour and American teams continually face them out of pool play for gritty matches. Germany will surely battle with the U.S. and Brazil for medals at the Olympics. In 2016, Germany's already finished with three teams in the top five at tournaments on two occasions. The competition to qualify and to medal will be as competitive as we've ever seen it.
HISTORY WILL BE MADE
Going into the 2016 Olympics, all of the top three U.S. teams in both genders are new partnerships. 2008 Gold Medalist Phil Dalhausser is playing for his third appearance, with partner Nick Lucena who is hoping to make his first Games. Leading in points are Jake Gibb and Casey Patterson, who have held that edge since early 2015. It'd be the first Olympics for Patterson, the third for Gibb who finished fifth in both 2008 and '12. John Hyden, a two-time indoor Olympian, and Tri Bourne are now playing catch-up after a back injury has sidelined their ability to get points and compete for one of the top two U.S. men's teams.
It doesn't end with the men's partnerships either. Lauren Fendrick and Brooke Sweat spent the majority of 2015 as the women's point leaders last year. It wasn't until back-to-back medal finishes for Ross and Walsh Jennings that the pair dropped out of the lead, but only by one slot. They're 12th in provisional Olympic rankings and No. 2 in the U.S. They're playing the Tour like it is its own chess match, which a lot of teams do leading up to the high stakes of qualifying. When to play, when to rehab and where to go. The duo sat out the AVP domestic tour last year to concentrate on making the Olympics and thus far it's worked.
Don't count out 2012 silver medalist Jennifer Kessy and her new partner Emily Day. Right in the fight for one of two available spots, Kessy and Day are only 410 points behind Fendrick and Sweat, which teams have jumped from that far behind to qualify before.
HOW THE U.S. WILL QUALIFY WILL BE SPECTACULAR
As injuries presented themselves in 2015, the question was if U.S. teams would be able to pick up the 12 required tournaments needed to qualify. Dalhausser and Lucena started their partnership late in the qualifying season and Walsh Jennings was out with injury, prohibiting her from earning points with Ross. Now both of those teams have nine events – there are nine men's tournaments remaining and eight women's during the qualification process through rankings, which closes on June 13. After a team reaches the 12 needed, they begin to drop their lowest finishes to keep their 12 best.
It's no longer an 'if' that will be asked, but rather when the United States will lock up quota spots. Ninety-six athletes will compete in beach volleyball at the 2016 Olympics, 48 men and 48 women; that's 24 teams in each gender. Countries can only qualify two teams per gender and Brazil is currently the only country with teams that have qualified.
Fighting to be in the Top 17 (Brazil gets one for hosting, another for the World Championship wins) is only one slice of the equation. Teams are duking it out to be one of the top two American teams. Back in 2012, Lucena and then-partner Matt Fuerbringer lost a chance at the big dance in the final tournament of qualification after being edged by Sean Rosenthal and Gibb for the second American quota spot. How the U.S. will qualify will be spectacular this year, as that could easily play out again as teams jockey for positioning.
The spectacular nature of the game presents itself in the FIVB World Tour as teams prove time and again they've earned their country's quota spot. The United States will debut new teams in 2016, but will be working toward continuing the history of gold success.