RIO DE JANEIRO — Every athlete has to win mental battles before he or she can ever stand on a podium celebrating physical accomplishments, and nowhere is that more true than at the Olympic Games.
For the most decorated and iconic female beach volleyball player in the world, Kerri Walsh Jennings, the toughest battle of her accomplished career came Wednesday. That’s the day she and her volleyball partner April Ross had to summon the will to play in what Ross called “the hardest match to play in sports.”
The reason is in the risk.
“One team is going empty handed,” said Ross, after she and Walsh Jennings secured bronze in a thrilling three-set victory over the world’s No. 1 ranked team — Larissa Franca and Talita Antunes, 17-21, 21-17, 15-9. “And one team is going home with an Olympic medal. I talked to myself all day. I was in shock last night (after losing to Brazil’s Agatha Bednarczuk and Barbara Seixas in the semifinals), and it slowly got worse throughout the day. I spent a lot of time in bed with my eyes closed, trying to get up for this match. It was tough.” Walsh Jennings echoed her partner’s struggle, saying she kept replaying her semifinal performance and all that went wrong.
“Last night I was subpar,” she said. “So it was harder than I thought to get up for this match. I had a moment where I talked to myself all night long, and at some point, I said, ‘You need to stop feeling sorry for yourself. You have no one else to blame, and it’s an honor to have another day to fight for what you want.’”
Walsh Jennings was able to summon that fight because that’s her goal every day, in every area of her life.
“You get here by not focusing on the end result,” she said. “If I’m waiting three and a half years to be happy, that’s a miserable ride and I’ve lived it that way.”
Instead, whether the challenge is on the court or off, she said, she simply tries to give it all of her focus, all of her effort. It’s the reason she doesn’t see age, injury or motherhood as obstacles to her success.
When asked how she juggles motherhood with the life of a professional volleyball player, she quickly debunks the myths that women have to be superhuman to do more than one thing well.
If she has had a message since having her third child, it’s this — being a mom doesn’t mean you have to give up everything else. The 38-year-old has repeatedly said, sometimes to criticism, that having children enhanced everything about her life, including her ability to play volleyball.
“Whatever I’m doing I want to be great,” she said.
That includes teaching her children that they are capable enough to pursue everything they want in life — even if society tells women they can’t or shouldn’t.
And that desire to do her best, whatever she’s doing, every moment of her life, is what haunted her after Tuesday night’s semifinal loss.
Eventually, it was a pep-talk from her coach, who reminded the women that they didn’t have to face the risk of leaving these Olympics empty-handed alone. “He said, ‘This is for your country; this is for your people, your husband, your family, he hit the heart,” Walsh Jennings said over the roar of the crowd celebrating the start of the gold medal match just outside the breezeway where she met with media in the early hours of Thursday morning, thanks to a television-friendly schedule that asked the women to play at 10 p.m. for bronze and midnight for gold. “He made it not about the match; he made it about going out there and doing our best. It just took the pressure off.”
When she stepped onto the court to listen to the Star Spangled Banner, she had a vision that would carry her, protect her and help her persevere through mistakes that cost them the first set of the match.
“I felt my kids,” she said, passion raising her voice. “I felt my parents, I felt April’s family, and it was a huge boost for me,” she said, burying her face in the flag that was draped over her shoulders as Ross recounted a discussion that included playing for those who serve the United States in the military.
Those who wear the uniform deal with much greater challenges and risks than whether or not their Olympic quest will end empty-handed.
Still, summoning the competitive fire necessary to beat the top-ranked Brazilians in a stadium full of their fans, who incidentally are some of the loudest and most animated in the world, took the kind of incredible grit that’s come to define her storied career.
“The bronze medal match is the gnarliest match I’ve ever played in,” she said. “Last night felt so bad. Losing happens, but losing that way is something that’s unacceptable to me. … I’m so grateful for every gold medal … but this was 10 times harder.”
She said it had been a “crazy” experience to go from losing all she’d worked for to fighting for a prize no one ever aspires to win.
“It’s amazing what 24 hours can do,” she said. “What we are capable of doing, what the American spirit is capable of doing when backed into a corner, what’s possible when you stick together.”
Walsh Jennings took time to shake every hand and hug every volunteer, from those who rake the court to those who hand them water or fetch them towels. The crowd cheered mightily for her Brazilian opponents, and even booed her when she served. But, one volunteer said, they love her because she sees them, she acknowledges them. Several asked for pictures and autographs, just a token to remember their inconsequential meeting with one of the greatest volleyball players to ever grace the court.
Ross told reporters there is nobody bigger for women in the sport.
“I don’t think you can overstate it,” Ross said. “She is the biggest influence in beach volleyball. I’m really proud I could help her get a fourth medal. She’s just everything that you think she is. She’s generous and the hardest-working person. She’s always trying to get better, an amazing mom, an amazing wife, she’s something to live up to. And I think everybody in the sport feels that way about her.”
Walsh Jennings was asked about her future and whether or not this was her final Olympics.
“I haven’t spent one second thinking about that,” she said without the least bit of irritation. “I have no room in me for thinking about tomorrow. I was focused 100 percent on being present because I think that’s where our power is, that’s where our joy is. … That being said, I’m so excited to figure it out. Whatever I choose is going to be right for myself and my family.” So whether she remains a competitor or finds a seat on the sideline, she will remain a giant of the game. Her talent, grace, generosity, sportsmanship and perseverance were never more evident than when she showed us how to stop pining for what we don’t have or what we’ve lost and simply accept, embrace and appreciate what is ours.