You won’t find the p1440 Pro Challenge on any beach volleyball schedule. It won’t be listed on BVBinfo.com. It won’t make the cut on the FIVB website, though the talent level is as high as any on the calendar.
Friday will be the first of ideally a number of future Pro Challenges, or events of similar size and talent.
Descending upon Manhattan Beach will be Kerri Walsh Jennings and Brooke Sweat, Canada’s Brandie Wilkerson and Heather Bansley, Kelley Larsen and Emily Stockman, Australians Nicole Laird and Becchara Palmer, Betsi Flint and Emily Day, Japan’s Megumi Murakami and Miki Ishii, Germans Isabel Schneider and Victoria Bieneck, and Sarah Sponcil and Kelly Claes.
“The idea is to make this a huge success and go from there,” Walsh Jennings said.
It is, in short, a paid exhibition between some of the top teams in the world as they prepare for the FIVB Chetumal four-star November 13-17, the final event of the 2019 season.
“It’s an incredible opportunity for the athletes to get some competition in before the final tournament of the year. It’s been a really long year,” Walsh Jennings said. “I think the opportunity to compete against some of the best teams in the world and also have a lot of fun in a more free and less-stressful environment is wonderful.”
The format will model that of the FIVB. The eight teams will be split into two pools, and the competition will then be modified pool play. The top teams from each pool will play one another in the finals, while the second teams from each will compete for bronze.
“I look forward to getting some in-game reps without everything on the line,” said Walsh Jennings, who just last week was in China, where she and Sweat won silver the FIVB three-star tournament in Qinzhou.
“So often international teams come to America (to train) and with everything we’re building at p1440, the goal is always to service the sport and serve the athletes. And we can do that and kill so many birds with one stone with the Pro Challenge, because the athletes are going to make some money, we’re getting competition reps, we’re able to stream so anyone can watch. We’re getting more exposure for the athletes and the sport, so it’s awesome. And the community’s going to be involved, so we’re hitting a lot of our core principles.”
Walsh Jennings joked about her “nuttiest week,” consider the travel home, taking care of all that goes with that, practicing, and then competing Friday.
And Friday is going to be a very full day. Between pool play and the finals, the finals of last week’s developmental tournament will be played. The men’s final will feature Chris Austin and Earl Schultz against Dylan Maarek and Branden Clemens. The women’s developmental final is Allie Wheeler and Brittany Tiegs against Jessica Gaffney and Alexa Strange.
And, at noon, a “legends four-man” will take place, with Tim Hovland and Mike Dodd, Sinjin Smith and Steve Obradovich. They’ll be joined by future legends Taylor Crabb, Chase Budinger, Sean Rosenthal and Troy Field.
After it’s done, more practice and then on to Mexico, where Walsh Jennings and Sweat will cap off 2019. It’s been a season in which they’ve traveled more than can be imagined on the FIVB tour.
“It’s been really fun the past month,” Walsh Jennings said.
Since a tough finish in early September at the FIVB World Tour Finals in Rome, where they lost in the first round of the winners bracket — “that was such a bummer” — Walsh Jennings and Sweat have embraced a new coach in Rich Lambourne, and added Brazilian Luciano Kioday and Casey Jennings, Kerri’s husband, to the staff.
“Brooke and I have been going to work” Walsh Jennings said. “To have bounced back after Rome in a positive way in training and then see our training translate to the court is really wonderful. I can’t wait to end on the highest note possible in Mexico and then get after it in the offseason.”
After Rome, they won the NORCECA event in the the Dominican Republic in early October, and then fell in the Qinzhou final, where they split not only $8,000, but earned 540 valuable FIVB points, so important toward Olympic qualifying.
“I’m ready for the season to be over,” Walsh Jennings admitted, “but I’m very excited to put the work in the offseason and preseason to become what I believe will be the best team in the world.”