The Sand Storm
After three incredible Olympic gold medals in beach volleyball, Kerri Walsh Jennings is both household name and hometown hero.
- Written byAmber Klinck
Sitting outside enjoying a much-needed cappuccino, mother of three and Olympic gold medalist Kerri Walsh Jennings politely excuses herself, leans over to the man sitting at a nearby table and compliments his sneakers. They have a brief but friendly conversation—Kerri mentions that her husband, professional beach volleyball player Casey Jennings, wears the same brand and the two compare notes on the best places to shop for the shoes.
Afterwards Kerri sits back in her chair and returns the conversation to Rio and the upcoming 2016 Summer Olympics. Perhaps it’s little moments like this, showcasing the down-to-earth, approachable nature Kerri possesses, that have contributed to the Olympian’s nickname “Six Feet of Sunshine.” Maybe it’s that Kerri greets the people she meets with a hug rather than a handshake, or the abundance of optimism she exudes.
Whatever the reason, there’s no doubt the nickname was intended to describe Kerri’s off-court persona. Because once Kerri steps onto the sand, she becomes a force of nature less synonymous with sunshine.
Over the course of her career as a professional beach volleyball player, Kerri has taken the sport to new heights, with a level of success many suggest will never be replicated. Kerri and her 11-year partner, Misty May-Treanor, have been described as the greatest women’s beach volleyball team ever, winning a record-breaking 112 back-to-back matches and 19 consecutive tournaments. But for Kerri, a career on the sand wasn’t always in the cards.
“Initially I avoided beach volleyball. I was all limbs; I’d trip over nothing. I was more comfortable indoors,” she explains.
To say she was “more comfortable indoors” is an understatement. At Stanford, Kerri was a four-time First-Team All-American for women’s indoor volleyball and is now an inductee in the Stanford Athletics Hall of Fame. After college, Kerri would have her first Olympic experience competing on the Women’s Indoor National Team during the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney.
Kerri was more than willing to step outside her comfort zone and onto the sand, however, when the opportunity to partner with Misty May-Treanor presented itself. “It was a moment of reckoning. For a chance to play with Misty, I was willing to let go of all my inhibitions. But I was as green as you could get.”
After years of success playing indoors, Kerri’s initial experience on the sand was humbling. “I felt like Bambi,” she explains. “The athletic ability and required skill sets are the same; it’s the nuances that make beach volleyball so different. With indoor, the environment is very controlled. On the beach, I had to get used to the sun, the sand and the wind.”
But Kerri wasn’t about to give up. During her final year at Stanford, she commuted back and forth from Northern California to Huntington Beach where she lived with Misty. Together the team worked tirelessly to perfect the ebb-and-flow of their new partnership. “There was chemistry right away,” Kerri explains, “We had an organic rhythm.”
Still, while Kerri was working on familiarizing herself with the nuances of beach volleyball, the team’s performance suffered—and Kerri was frustrated. “Patience doesn’t run in my family,” she explains. “I was terrible to start, but Misty saw something in me. Right away we began competing against the best, and every time we lost it was because of me.”
Nevertheless, Misty stuck by Kerri, and it’s a good thing she did. Together Kerri and Misty would change the sport forever through an extraordinary series of victories that included winning the 2005, 2007 and 2009 FIVB World Championships and taking home the gold in the 2004, 2008 and 2012 Olympics.
Amazingly enough, while Kerri was making history as a professional volleyball player, she was also deeply invested in another role. At the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, Kerri and Casey were expecting, and in May of 2009, they welcomed their first son, Joseph Michael.
Eleven months later, the family of three became a family of four with the birth of Sundance Thomas. Next came a baby girl, Scout Margery, born in 2013. Kerri was in the early stages of her pregnancy with Scout during the 2012 Olympics in London. “I’ve been blessed with the timing of my pregnancies,” she says.
True to her character, Kerri approached motherhood with exuberance and positivity, a state of mind that originated from witnessing her own mother’s experience. “I would look at her. She was beaming; she made it look so beautiful,” Kerri explains.
Throughout her own pregnancies, Kerri stayed strong and incredibly fit. “I was born to be a mom,” she says. “I never felt more empowered than when I was pregnant. I was utilizing my body as woman, not an athlete.”
During a shoot for ESPN’s 2013 body issue, Kerri’s physique was celebrated as both an athlete and a mother. At nine months pregnant, Kerri was photographed for the feature—only to pose again for the same issue a mere nine weeks after giving birth, showcasing a truly inspirational transformation. “I appreciate my body, as much as I complain about it,” she says.
Like many women balancing career and family, Kerri’s days start early and are filled with preparing meals, running the kids around and work commitments. Albeit Kerri’s profession requires a few out-of-the-norm obligations, like 7:30 a.m. drug tests, for example. (Random testing is required of all the Olympic athletes prior to Rio’s 2016 games.)
Kerri, however, maintains an awe-inspiring combination of focus and lightheartedness. She appears driven but not consumed, relaying a calm assurance that she can do it all.
Kerri will be the first to acknowledge the immense amount of support she receives from family, friends and world-class trainers. “A lot of people have helped me to get to where I am,” she explains. “It takes time to find your team; I have my village.”
Included in that village are Kerri’s coaches, Marcio Sicoli and Jon Daze. To stay strong, Kerri works with Contrologie Pilates instructor Kerry Wachtfogel in Manhattan Beach, trainer and performance chiropractic specialist Tommy Knox at the OC Fast-Twitch Training Center and Frank Amato, Kerri’s DC and physical therapist. Keeping her head in the game is sports psychologist Mike Gervais.
At the center of it all, Kerri’s greatest source of support has been Casey. The two met while playing against each other during Kerri’s early stages of training with Misty. Their first conversation was brief, Kerri notes, “but it all clicked.”
After dating for 3½ weeks, the 20-somethings moved in together in what Kerri describes as “the tiniest little place on Rosecrans.” These early years in the South Bay were Kerri’s first years on her own, but she was happy. “The sense of community here made me feel comfortable, Misty made me feel comfortable, and I was in love,” she explains.
After dating for 4½ years, Kerri and Casey married in December 2005, though the couple faced their share of obstacles. “Casey and I had a rough spot,” Kerri explains. “We faced a lot of challenges. People weren’t always supportive of our relationship.”
Working hard individually, Kerri and Casey began to live separate lives. “It was the hardest time of my life,” Kerri notes, “but it forced us to deal with our issues. We found we still wanted the same things, which brought us closer to ourselves and closer to each other. Going through our rough patch saved our marriage.”
It’s hard not to be inspired when Kerri talks about the hurdles she’s overcome, both personally and professionally. There’s an undeniable sincerity in her voice as she talks about the things she’s passionate about: her children, her husband, her sport. Beneath the athletic powerhouse, beneath the Olympian that dominates the beach, there’s a refreshing honesty—an unmistakable realness that makes you want to root for her.
Today Kerri, along with her new partner, April Ross, have set their sights on a new goal: winning gold at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio. “We are very excited,” says Kerri, “We have all the tools to win.”
With training beginning in January and competitions ending in October, this will be the first full year the two have played together. Of course Kerri isn’t the only Jennings on a quest for gold. Casey is chasing his own dreams.
“He’s my favorite player. He elevates everyone to play better,” Kerri says. “Our goal is for us both to win gold.”
When asked how Kerri envisions her life after competing professionally, she smiles and says, “I see the light at the end of the tunnel, but right now I’m really enjoying the tunnel. I wouldn’t play if my heart wasn’t in it, but it is.”
For now, the focus is Rio and the possibility of a fourth gold medal. And who knows, maybe a fourth child. After all, Kerri says, “Summer is the time for making babies.”