By Alex Baker
The last time Kerri Walsh Jennings met April Ross on an Olympic beach volleyball court they were on opposite sides of the net competing against one another in the Gold Medal match at the 2012 London Olympics. When they hit the sand in Rio de Janeiro next month Walsh Jennings will be Ross’ partner, as she seeks to become just the second U.S. woman in history to win four consecutive gold medals in the same sport.
Walsh Jennings became a household name with former partner Misty May-Treanor, winning gold on the beach in Athens 2004, Beijing 2008 and London 2012. However, May-Treanor retired after London, leaving Walsh, the most successful female athlete in the history of the sport, in need of a new partner. The 6’3 Californian, whose nickname is “Six Feet of Sunshine,” literally could have had her pick of partners and decided on Ross.
Also a California girl, Ross grew up in Newport Beach and was an indoor volleyball star in high school and college, becoming an all-American and winning two national championships at USC. She also played professionally in Puerto Rico.
At the time, Ross had little regard for beach volleyball and preferred to play indoors.
“I didn’t feel as talented, or as good, on the beach as I did indoor. It was so much harder. I didn’t want to play it. I didn’t like getting sandy or sweaty. It wasn’t my thing,” said Ross to the New York Times.
Ironically, it was when she left the court behind for the beach that Ross really found her niche’ as an athlete. After growing disenfranchised with the indoor game, Ross quit professional sports and was contemplating law school when a friend invited her to compete in a local beach tournament. This time, playing on the sand clicked.
But while Ross had finally come around to appreciating Beach Volleyball, she struggled at it.
It wasn’t until she formed a partnership with Jen Kessy in 2007 that her career as a beach volleyball athlete really began to catch fire. The two teamed up for a tournament when their regular partners were unavailable, finished second and stuck together.
They narrowly missed out on Beijing 2008 and four years later, took silver, after losing to Walsh Jennings and May-Treanor, the most successful female duo in the history of the sport.
Ironically, it was on the court in London, just after the match concluded, that the seeds of her partnership with Walsh Jennings were sewn. As the four women came together at the net to hug and congratulate one another, Walsh Jennings whispered in her ear.
“At the net she said, ‘Let’s go win gold in Rio.’ We hadn’t had that conversation,” said Ross. “I was caught off-guard, but it was a no-brainer for me.”
Although several months went by before Ross actually heard from Walsh Jennings, when the two women finally launched their partnership, they took the sport of women’s beach volleyball by storm.
In their first full season together, they won all seven events on the Association Volleyball Professionals (AVP) tour. Ross led the tour in aces and kills per game. The two also won four out of ten tournaments on the FIVB tour. On the 2015 AVP tour, Ross became the first woman to win domestic titles with three different partners, winning once with Walsh Jennings, two with Jennifer Fopma and once with Lauren Fendrick.
In 2016 Walsh Jennings and Ross have been on fire. Currently unbeaten on the AVP tour, they are ranked second in the world and are among the favorites to win gold in Rio.
However, Ross, who will be competing in just her second Olympics, bristles at comparisons to May-Treanor.
“I think I’m a more aggressive player,” said Ross. “She was more finesse and feel.”
Walsh Jennings, who recently underwent shoulder surgery for the fifth time, agrees.
“It’s tough to compare,” said Walsh Jennings to Reuters. “Misty was an amazing partner. We went through a lot together, personally and professionally, and had our run of success.”
“April and I are in our third year of playing together and we’re feeling really good. My shoulder injuries and surgery late last year were a bit of an obstacle but we’ve found an incredible rhythm.”
“But we both want gold in Rio so bad and we are in it to win it. Sharing that and competing well pushes us even more. It’s been a wild and exciting year so far and I can’t wait to see what we can accomplish over the next few months.”
With any luck, one of those accomplishments will be a fourth consecutive Olympic gold medal for Walsh Jennings and a first for Ross, as the two women who once faced off against one another hunt for Olympic glory together.
Photos courtesy of Joe Toth and ISI.