The Defeat of Kerri Walsh Jennings and the End of an Era
Late Wednesday night in Rio on Copacabana Beach, the unthinkable happened. Kerri Walsh Jennings, of U.S. beach volleyball notoriety, lost her first ever Olympic beach volleyball match.
But unfortunately, that description doesn’t do it justice. Kerri Walsh Jennings and partner April Ross, also of U.S. beach volleyball notoriety, got destroyed by a pair of faster, stronger, and more amped up Brazilians. Never in her career has Kerri Walsh Jennings ever looked more out of it than in the semifinal match against two Brazilians that both go by first names, albeit lame ones like Agatha and Barbara. Using a single name like Pelé, I can understand. But if my first name was Barbara, I would probably go with something more appropriate, like Lazer.
As Brazil’s second-most popular sport, it was a full house at the beach volleyball venue, with Brazilians waving their country’s flag, loud music, and enough strobe lights to give even the healthiest athlete a seizure. Walsh Jennings and Ross were unable to keep up from the start, as the Brazilians enjoyed home field advantage, essentially playing with three people as the raucous crowd roared with every point by the home team.
After several aces, Agatha and Barbara saw a pattern and continued to target Walsh Jennings throughout the match. The Brazilians were able to dig out almost every spike, and blocked several shots at the net, forming an iron-clad defense that stumped the Americans from the beginning.
The loss snaps Walsh Jennings’ Olympic match win streak, and brings her record to 26-1, an epic run that will almost undoubtedly never be repeated.
While the loss wasn’t technically an upset, with the Brazilians as a 2-seed and the U.S. as a 3-seed, it still had that feeling, especially with the once-dominant Americans getting swept in two sets.
Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the loss is that the blame rests solely on Walsh Jennings, who was figuratively held up by her partner through the entire match. There will be no calls for former partner Misty May-Treanor to come out of retirement. April Ross held up her end of the bargain.
It’s as simple as an era coming to an end. Walsh Jennings is, and forever will be, one of the most dominant beach volleyball players of all time. But in her fourth Olympics, she finds herself in the bronze medal match for the first time ever (where she will play another pair of Brazilians). There may be no better explanation than time catching up with her.
Whether or not she retires after Rio, Kerri Walsh Jennings will continue to enjoy an Olympic legacy that remains intact, despite missing out on a fourth straight gold medal. At this point in her career, there is nothing left to prove. While the bitter taste of this loss may never really go away, Walsh Jennings should be able to rest easy knowing she put her sport on the map and cemented her status as one of the all-time greats.
Michael Sapenoff is a writer and artist in Kansas City. Follow him @MikeSapenoff