It is sometimes possible for a season, even a season that included nearly 20 tournaments and 14 countries and stretches of being away from home for more than a month at a time, to be reflected, in its entirety, in a single match.
That’s how Kerri Walsh Jennings felt in the immediate moments after losing a heartbreaker to Australians Mariafe Artacho and Taliqua Clancy at the FIVB Chetumal four-star in Mexico on Saturday.
That match — 21-18, 16-21, 13-15 — contained everything her season with Brooke Sweat had gone through. It had moments of brilliance, like that first set. Moments of getting outplayed, such as the second. Moments of rebounding and resilience, in establishing an 11-7 and 12-8 lead in the third. And moments, yes, of heartbreak, as that 12-8 disappeared into a 13-15 loss.
“I think that the entire match, game one, game two, game three is kind of indicative of how our season has been,” Walsh Jennings said. “Moments of struggle, moments of overcoming, moments of kicking ass, and then moments of kind of slipping away. Games two and three started with awesome leads and our goal is to expand on those leads. Game three we had a big lead, 11-7, and we didn’t call timeout, didn’t take a breath.
“I think we could have come together a little bit more. It was a rad match; those girls are awesome. I like Brooke and I against anyone in the world, I really do. It’s very clear what we need to work on from this match.”
It was not the desired result, of course, but lessons have already been reaped from it, and in that, it is not a fruitless loss at all. Walsh Jennings loves the clarity with which her and Sweat will go into this off-season. She loves the fact that they are about to enjoy an off-season at all, their first in two years.
“Going into off-season with a lot of clarity is a gift,” Walsh Jennings said. “I’m so proud of how far we’ve come. There was no off-season these past two years and I’m so proud of how far we’ve come, literally bottom of the barrel to almost the top. We’re not stopping. It feels good. It’s really humbling and frustrating. We’re very clear on how to move forward.”
It is impressive enough that they have been able to move forward as much as they already have without that sense of clear direction. As Walsh Jennings mentioned: They started from the bottom of the barrel. They were in qualifiers and country quotas as late as September, prior to the Rome World Tour Finals. And yet now they are the second-ranked American team in the Olympic race and fifth in the world.
“I feel like it’s all in our hands and that’s a beautiful thing because we’re not dependent on somebody else playing a crappy game for us to win,” Walsh Jennings said. “I think we need to rely on our strengths a little more at the end of games. No need to be tentative, no need to control, let’s assert ourselves in our own powerful way.”
For now, they will assert themselves by resting, for once. By recovering, getting healthy, taking a breath. The earliest four-star on the schedule isn’t until March 25, in Cancun, Mexico. Plenty of time to use that off-season clarity to improve upon what was, by any measure, a phenomenal season.
“I think 2020 we’re going for greatness, we’re going for legendary status,” Walsh Jennings said. “The goal is to be consistently great, consistently high at all times. The physicality is there. The skills are there. The craftsmanship is there. If we put it all together, all the tools we have, we’re going to be really hard to beat.”