Kerri Walsh Jennings had a busy Tuesday.
This was interview five or six. She wasn’t sure. But when you’ve won three gold medals and are in the hunt to go to your sixth Olympics, fifth on the beach, everyone wants to hear what you think about the Tokyo Games being postponed.
“I am totally, totally at peace with this,” Walsh Jennings said. “I think it’s the most rational and most thoughtful decision you could make for all of the stakeholders. I appreciate that they took their time to make this decision.”
The decision, of course, is to hold the Olympics some time in 2021 because of the coronavirus. The coronavirus postponement is the first time that the Olympics have been altered by a non-war event.
“Everyone’s health and well being are paramount, of course, but they’ve been planning this for years and years and years and invested billions of dollars and just can’t snap their fingers and make a decision … so I appreciate the thoughtfulness in the matter and they made the right decision as far as I’m concerned.”
Walsh, 41, and partner Brooke Sweat currently stand second in the USA race for the two Olympic beach volleyball spots. April Ross and Alix Klineman are all but a lock to take one of them, while youngsters Kelly Claes and Sarah Sponcil are very much in the race and Kelley Larsen and Emily Stockman can’t be ruled out.
“Everyone’s been asking how we feel about it,” Sponcil said, “and I feel great because the last year I’ve just been like ‘OK, let’s get as many points as we can, let’s pass Kerri, it’s crunch time.’ It would have been crunch time right now and now I have the time to process the opportunity I have in front of me.
“I’m trying my hardest to slow down and be like ‘Whoa this is an amazing opportunity having another year to get experience, to slow down a little bit, and take it all in.’ It’s the best thing for our team and for me personally. I’m stoked for it but I can understand why other people are devastated because they waited literally four years and now it’s going to be five.”
Waiting a year is OK with Walsh Jennings, who won bronze in Rio in 2016 with Ross. For that matter, considering how everyone can’t train properly or at all, she said it was comforting, in a way, “to know what we’re working with.
“We can all wrap our heads around it and move forward in a powerful way. There’s a lot of relief, as far as I’m concerned. And what I like about this decision in our world, at least, the qualification process is just extended. It doesn’t need to be altered in any way, the way they weigh certain things or change anything except for the length of it. And that to me was my biggest concern. It could get political or subjective and this minimizes that and that’s very nice.”
Walsh Jennings, a 6-foot-3 star at Stanford, played on the USA indoors team that placed fourth in 2000 in Sydney. Then she went to the beach, paired with Misty May-Treanor, and together they won gold in Athens in 2004, Beijing in 2008, and London in 2012. After that, May-Treanor retired and Walsh Jennings played with Ross through the last Olympics.
The 5-foot-8 Sweat, the product of Florida Gulf Coast University, went to the 2016 Olympics with Lauren Fendrick.
Walsh Jennings was, like most other pros, set to hit the FIVB circuit earlier this month.
“We made the decision yesterday that postseason starts now,” Walsh Jennings said, explaining that during this non-tournament time it’s a training opportunity to “gain muscle, gain strength, work on everything you can’t do in season.”
On the men’s side for the USA’s two slots, the leaders are Jake Gibb and Taylor Crabb. Tri Bourne and Crabb’s brother, Trevor, are second, and veterans Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena are third.
“I was talking to Brooke about it, and to Casey (Jennings, her husband who is helping coach the pair) and I think this delay is going to help us more than anybody. You know, Brooke and I are both in phases of our lives, where this is good. I have my family. If I was waiting for 2020 to be over so I could start my family and then this happens, I would be in a tailspin. That would be really hard for me.”
“Once that clock starts ticking, life is more important. I’m in the position where I don’t have that. I’m good. I have things that I want to do, but I can do them in tandem with what I’ve been doing. And Brooke is totally comfortable waiting.”
The Jennings have three kids — Kerri was pregnant during the 2012 Games — and Sweat, 33, doesn’t have children.
“Ultimately,” she said, “we get another year to become the greatest I have ever been or we have ever been and that excites me.”
And Walsh Jennings, who has had multiple shoulder surgeries, offered one more bit of perspective.
“I remember before I got hurt before Rio I was chasing Karch [Kiraly’s] record, his win record. And then I dislocated my shoulder twice and I was worried if I was even going to get to play again. And then I was just so happy to compete.
“And then with this, the stress of the Olympics and qualifying period, that’s all going to go away and there’s going to be so much appreciation and space in my mind to just be there to compete and lay it all out there. Because I appreciate that I get to do this.”
We will have a story on Wednesday about the indoor side of things. Earlier Tuesday, USA Volleyball CEO Jamie Davis released the following statement:
While today’s news that the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games in Tokyo have been postponed until next year is an extremely sad moment, USA Volleyball absolutely concurs that it is the correct decision in light of the COVID-19 pandemic that is accelerating in many regions of the world and is very much unpredictable at this stage. The health and safety for the athletes, team delegations, Games administrators and worldwide fans take precedent over sport in times like these.
For our Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls, I understand the days and weeks leading up to this decision have created uncertainty and anxiety in your lives. Rest assured, USA Volleyball will continue to do our utmost to manage through these extraordinary times and support you how we can. We look forward to being able to resume normal training and competition in preparation for the Tokyo Games soon. We are a team and we are all in this together.
I hold high confidence that the International Olympic Committee, International Paralympic Committee, the Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee and the Japanese government will work cohesively together to reset the Games next year in a fair manner for all involved and I appreciate them listening to the athletes’ voice in their decision making process. I envision the world’s top athletes coming together in Tokyo next year sharing the message that as a world we can unite as one team even though wearing the country flags of many.