Walsh Jennings partners with Sweat seeking spot in Tokyo Olympics

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Kerri Walsh Jennings lunges for a line serve/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

Four-time Olympic beach volleyball medalist Kerri Walsh Jennings announced Tuesday that she will partner with another Olympian, Brooke Sweat, starting with p1440 Las Vegas, a FIVB four-star Olympic qualifying event October 17-21.

The 6-foot-3 Walsh Jennings, who won Olympic gold three times with Misty May-Treanor and then bronze in 2016 with April Ross, has been plagued by shoulder injuries since. Sweat, too, is coming back from shoulder surgery and p1440 Las Vegas will be her first event since March.

The 5-foot-8 Sweat, who played last season with Summer Ross, who is now with Sara Hughes, partnered with Lauren Fendrick in the 2016 Olympics, where they placed 19th.

Walsh Jennings, the former Stanford star who turned 40 in August, and Sweat, the 32-year-old who played at Florida Gulf Coast, plan to make a run at Tokyo 2020.

The pair also will play at an FIVB three-star event in Chetumal, Mexico, October 24-28.

However, they won’t play together in the p1440 events in San Diego and Huntington Beach — on the tour started by and owned by Walsh Jennings and her husband, Casey —  but do have an eye on their first 2019 event together at the FIVB four-star in the Hague.

“Brooke has undeniably been one of the world’s best defenders since she hit the international stage,” Jennings said. “This excites me greatly. Brooke maximizes every ounce of her talent with her great attitude, relentless work ethic and desire to excel; this is the mark of a champion.

“Brooke has been there. She’s earned her way to the top. She’s experienced most everything in this game and she has always put herself in contention. She has always elevated her partners and allowed her partners to elevate her game. I love this attribute.”

Walsh Jennings played the first p1440 event in San Jose with Anouk Vergé-Dépré of Switzerland and is scheduled to play the FIVB four-star event in Yangzhou, China, with Kelly Claes, so she and Sweat have only practiced together a few times. Sweat said that last Friday was the first time they scrimmaged another team.

Sweat will play on the right side. Sweat, originally a left-sider, converted in her partnership with Fendrick.

Walsh Jennings’ and Sweat’s partnership came about gradually.

“I had reached out to Kerri about something else,” Sweat said, “Something that I had a question about, and she called me back one day, and we got to talking, and she asked what my plans were, and if I wanted to get in the sand with her, and feel things out.”

Sweat’s shoulder wasn’t ready then, but she told Walsh Jennings, “Yeah, when I am (ready), let’s do it.’

“We had had a few practices together, and she asked if I would be ready for Vegas, and if I was, if I would want to play that tournament with her, so I replied, ‘Absolutely.’

“My plan was to come back for Vegas. The doctor cleared me for Vegas, so I called Kerri and said, ‘Let’s do Vegas.’

“I think a few more practices after that, she asked if I wanted to play with her and go for 2020. She had been practicing with another girl as well at that time, so I was waiting to see which way she wanted to go, and she asked me, and now we’re here.”

Sweat said she has been impressed with Jennings’ work ethic.

“It’s been really cool. I’ve played against her plenty of times, so I’m excited to be on the same side of the net with her. I am absolutely loving our practices so far. She just brings the level up so much.”

Accordingly, she looks forward to getting into a tournament with her new partner.

“Kerri is a winner and I just have so much respect for her,” Sweat said. “She knows what it takes and will do whatever it takes to win. I love and appreciate that about her and I’m so ready to get this journey to Tokyo gold started.

“She raises the standards, and it’s so fun being on the court with someone that just wants to out-hustle and out-work the other team because that’s always been my mindset, and what I want to do every time I step on the sand.”

Brooke Sweat-FTL-Fort Lauderdale-FIVB Beach-Beach Major Series
Brooke Sweat has had two shoulder surgeries/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

Walsh Jennings has had six shoulder surgeries and Sweat two.

Sweat was only recently cleared to compete. She hurt her shoulder at the FIVB five-star event in Fort Lauderdale this past March and had surgery in May. She previously had issues with her rotator cuff, which required surgery before the Rio Olympics.

“The first two weeks of rehab was the most painful two weeks of my life,” Sweat said. “The first 12 weeks I couldn’t do anything physical, and nothing for my lower body either, so it was just straight rehab, and we were pretty conservative with it.

“It was a recurring injury, so 12 weeks of nothing except rehab. At 12 weeks, my doctor said everything was great, so we ramped it up a little bit, and pretty much since then, we’ve just been hitting one goal after another really quickly, and now I’m less than two weeks from my return to competition.”

Sweat’s therapy sessions with Repair Sports Institute were extensive, 90 minutes for five days a week. She’s down to 60 and some of the rehab at home. Sweat lives in North Redondo Beach and Repair Sports Institute has offices in Huntington Beach and Costa Mesa, so her rehab takes extensive driving time.

“The shoulder feels really good,” she said. “I’m not in any pain, which is amazing.”

Sweat said she had to recover mentally, too.

“It took me a bit mentally to get to a good spot, knowing that I’m going to do something with the shoulder, and it’s not going to hurt. I’m over that hump now, both mentally and physically.”

Sweat’s husband, Nick, lives in their home in Estero, Fla., where he is a real estate agent.

“We’ve been doing it for a while,” Sweat said, adding that Nick has flexibility in his schedule to travel. “So it makes it easier. Doesn’t mean that it’s easy, but it’s easier for us … he’s able come out here more and come to more tournaments. The last few years it’s been really nice seeing him more.”

The pair will be coached by Marcio Sicoli, now the first-year head coach at Pepperdine, who worked with Jennings and May-Treanor previously.

“He knows what he’s doing, for sure,” Sweat said. “It’s easy to trust him.”

Walsh Jennings need to finish in the top 15 in the world rankings to qualify for the Olympics. Although Olympic qualification is based on the best 12 finishes during the qualification period, seeding points are currently based on four of the last six finishes. Despite her injury, Sweat still retains points from four finishes, but will lose her fourth finish on October 15, replacing it with FIVB Las Vegas. 

Click here for a full explanation of the Olympic beach qualifying process.

The pair will also have to contend with the country-quota rule, which limits the United States to two teams. Jennings and Sweat  currently have 1,920 points, ranking them fifth behind 2,840 for Alix Klineman and April Ross, 2,760 for Hughes and Summer Ross, 2,360 for Claes and Brittany Hochevar, and 2,340 for Kelley Larsen and Emily Stockman.

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