If you don’t know who Kerri Walsh Jennings and April Ross are, well, you’re probably not a sports fan and you’ve probably never watched the Olympics. Even my 82 -year-old Aunt Betty knows who Walsh/Ross are.
“How do they keep their panties on?” she asked after seeing them at AVP San Francisco.
That’s a question for another day, but for now, consider that the 6-foot-3 Walsh is entering her fifth Olympics as nothing short of an icon of the sport. She’s won gold three times, all with partner Misty May Treanor, in 2004, 2008 and 2012. May retired, and now Walsh is going for No. 4 with April Ross.
Walsh/Ross have established themselves as medal favorites.
“I thought the podium at Gstaad was a pretty good indicator of how the women’s side will go,” 2000 gold medalist and current NBC analyst Dain Blanton said, referring to an FIVB event this summer in which Brazilians Larissa Franca/Talita Antunes beat Walsh/Jennings in the final and Laura Ludwig/Kira Walkenhorst were third.
“At least two of those three teams will be on the medal stand. For Kerri to win, she’ll have to go through those two teams, and I think she’s very capable of doing that. Kerri knows how to prepare.”
Said three-time Olympian Holly McPeak: “Kerri and April have to be a medal favorite for sure in Rio. They are as physical as it comes and they have both proven that they perform well under the pressure both winning Olympic medals at the 2012 Olympics.”
Ross, playing with Jen Kessy, lost to Walsh Jennings/May Treanor in the 2012 gold-medal match, after which Walsh asked Ross to join her as a partner.
“As a team we’re really competitive,”Ross said. “We’re really grateful for the opportunity to do this and we’re both extremely growth-minded, we’re never satisfied. At the base of all of this, we want to enjoy the process, and for me that stems from my childhood growing up.
“My parents sacrificed so, so very much for my sister and I to be able to play sports, which really inspires me and drives me today, making me even more grateful for the opportunity to do this daily, and how could you not give your all and compete your hardest. We’ve been blessed with athleticism and physicality and have hopefully built up some mental toughness over the years.”
Walsh’s Olympic debut in the 2000 Sydney games was with the indoor team, where Walsh was declared ineligible for the first few matches due to a false positive epitestosterone-to-testosterone ratio drug test. A re-test cleared Walsh of any wrongdoing and the USA ultimately finished fourth.
Walsh, at 37 the oldest player in the beach field, began competing on the women’s pro tour in 2001, and ultimately partnered with Misty May Treanor, creating the most successful pair in beach volleyball Olympic history, winning gold in 2004 Athens, 2008 Beijing, and 2012 London.
Walsh’s 155 career wins are an all-time women’s record (78 wins on the AVP tour, and 77 wins on the FIVB tour), surpassing May’s record of 112. Walsh’s career earnings exceed $2 million, another record.
Walsh is married to long-time beach pro Casey Jennings, who reside in Hermosa Beach with their three children, Joseph (born in 2009), Sundance (born in 2010) and Scout (born in 2013). Walsh was a four-time All-American at Stanford University where the Cardinal won the 1996 and 1997 NCAA titles.
Ross, 34, has 59 wins, 32 on the domestic AVP tour and 27 on the FIVB world tour. Her career earnings exceed $1.5 million.
Ross, 6-1, lives in Costa Mesa, Calif. She, too, was an indoor star. At USC, she also was a four-time All-American, and also won back to back NCAA championships, in 2002-2003. Ross is married to pro beach volleyball standout and Arizona State beach volleyball coach Brad Keenan.
The Kerri/April pairing has continually made adjustments the past three-plus years. Both were left-side players, but when you combine Walsh, the FIVB best blocker (2005-8, 2-11-2012, 2-14), best hitter (2005-2007, 2012) with Ross, the FIVB best server (2011-2012, 2015), FIVB best hitter (2009), it figured that they quickly established themselves among the sport’s best.
Walsh/Ross experienced a hiccup in 2015, when Walsh went down with a a torn labrum in Gstaad.
“I think we’ve gone through a lot in the last 3.5 years, last year especially,” Ross said. “We overcame a lot of obstacles that made us stronger and we’re feeling really unstoppable right now.
Due to Olympic qualification requirements, the pair needed to complete 12 events within the prescribed period. Walsh/Ross did not have the luxury of being able to rest and rehabilitate, so Walsh completed the season serving and spiking left-handed.
“At Long Beach, with Kerri having to serve underhand, I was worried that we were going to finish in last place. After finishing second, we took that as a starting point, we’ll get better from here. I think that was a really important for us as a team, and me individually.”
Accordingly, Ross stepped up and established herself as the most feared left-side player on the planet, with several excellent results, including a silver-medal finish at the World Series of Beach Volleyball.
“Kerri’s injury forced me to do some things that maybe I wouldn’t have done,” Ross said. “She’s so amazing that I normally don’t need to step on her toes. When she got injured I had to do whatever I could to help us get to that unstoppable point and still beat teams that are really good. I had to push myself to do what I’m capable of. And I think I surprised myself, I think I surprised Marcio (Sicoli, their coach).”
Immediately after their season ended in September, Walsh went under the knife for her fifth shoulder surgery. The surgery was successful, and Walsh/Ross have qualified for the Olympics in third place behind both Brazilian teams.
Ross is ready to get started.
“We’re going to keep drawing on all the stories that we’ve accumulated over the last 3+ years to draw strength from and get to Rio and compete.”