Kerri Walsh Jennings - the beach volleyball icon opens up about her time off the court, the Games in Tokyo, and her future

The three-time Olympic champion is more energised than ever in her pursuit of a sixth Olympics

By Ashlee Tulloch

When it comes to beach volleyball, Kerri Walsh Jennings is the face of the sport.

It's not just because she's the most decorated player in history. The American is also charismatic, high energy, and oozes positivity on and off the court . It's no wonder her nick-name is Six Feet of Sunshine.

But even the 3-time Olympic Champion with the ever optimistic outlook admits, the last few months since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and her quest to compete at a sixth Olympics was put on hold, things have been tough.

''Everyday is a roller coaster and I'm constantly feeling so many different emotions, but I'm doing my best to stay positive. I tell myself to act like I chose it. I don't want want to be a victim of this so I take responsibility for how I turn up and approach every day,'' she told Olympic Channel.

Walsh Jennings has always believed in nurturing health and wellness, but feels now more than ever, mental health needs to be prioritised.

''I'm mostly focusing on my mind."

"I am weight training as well but the most important thing to me right now is my mental health and what's going on in my head." - Walsh Jennings to Olympic Channel

"I'm also doing things that I really love, like reading and journaling. Sleep is also really important to me. I prioritise sleep and make sure that I get 6/7 hours.''

Tokyo Calling

Some may have thought that the year's delay to the Tokyo Olympics would be a sign for the 41-year-old to retire from beach volleyball, but that couldn't be further from the mind of the American who's hungrier than ever to add to her five Olympic Games appearances.

''I haven't considered retiring before Tokyo. I love the Olympics so much, its been such a big part of my life and my career and I really do love it. A one year delay isn't an issue for my partner Brooke and I. It gives us another year to get better.'' - Walsh Jennings to Olympic Channel

After making her Olympic debut at Sydney 2000 she joined forces with Misty May Treanor. Together the duo won three Olympic gold medals, at Athens 2004, Beijing 2008, and 2012 London. She made the podium again at Rio 2016, this time collecting bronze with April Ross.

Gold is on her mind noe, and she feels her new partnership with Brooke Sweat can take her there again.

''Brooke is an incredible team mate. I miss seeing her, so much.

"We've been together since October 2018. We've realised that we both take things seriously and that we need to relax more because that's when we play free, and when we play free we play our best. We both want to be better and actually the Olympics moving to 2021 is great for us because we have more time to improve.''

The Team USA star says she doesn't know how long she will keep playing for, and the good news is that Paris 2024 is still on the cards.

''My husband said to me, hey babe, now the Tokyo Games are in 2021, the next Olympics after that are going to be even closer together, you could do another one.

"I truly don't know when I'll retire but I hope to keep playing forever. Maybe not at Olympic level, but still playing. I haven't ruled out Paris 2024."

"I love Paris, it's a great city and I would love to be there. If I'm not on the court playing I will be speaking too fast on a microphone.''


Olympic dream extended

When Olympic Channel asked about the fact that this week, she would have been checking into the athlete village, the beach volleyball legend was surprised the date has crept up.

''I hadn't really thought about that because right now i'm sitting here in the States, in a hotel room. Next week will be one year to go and that's remarkable.I can't wait to be there in a year and to be moving into the athlete village.''

Pressing pause has allowed her to reconnect with the sport.

''I'm more excited to play than ever before.This time has given me a chance to be revitalized and remember how much I love the game of beach volleyball. You know when you've been playing as long as I have, the shininess of it all can wear off. But I have so much energy and passion and love for the game and this time to pause has really reminded me of all that.''

As a mother, and someone who was in the early stages of her third pregnancy when she won gold at London 2012, she feels for the female athletes who were planning on having children after Tokyo this year and who are worried about their body clocks.

''I feel so much for those people because that maternal instinct and that pull can be so strong. And that fear of your body clock ticking is very real so I feel for them a lot.

"If someone decides that being a mother is more important than the Olympics right now, then what a beautiful choice and an amazing journey to go on, to bring a child into the world. But if someone chooses to wait until after the Olympics because that desire to go to Tokyo is so strong, then what a great and incredible choice that is too.

''There are a lot of other issues for athletes right now as well. Athletes in the US are self funded and many live below poverty line. Times are really tough and i'm feeling for those athletes too because some might have to give up on their dream because they cannot afford to go. The financial strain is very real.''

The new norm - off court

The effects and uncertainly of COVID-19 has meant changing with the times for Walsh Jennings, that means not playing the game she loves most.

''In the state of California they took the nets down, then put them back up, and then down again, so there's a lot going on and its complicated. I haven't seen Brooke since March 18th and we were supposed to fly to Australia. This is the longest time in 30 years that I haven't played a game."

Walsh Jennings knows what it takes to succeed. And considers the disruptions a 'road block', but she's adamant her goals and ambitions wont be derailed.

''As athletes we are robust and we're agile. And while things can be hard sometimes, this is life, and we all have to make the most of what is thrown at us.''

The Walsh Jennings household sparks into life, early, and Kerri leads the way.

''I get up between 4:30 and 5:30 [am] every day. I spend 15 mins max every morning meditating and creating that space for me, using that time to really set my focus and intentions for the day. I can't jump straight into everything I need to do each day if I haven't created that space for myself to just be calm and breathe.

''I like to think of three things that I am grateful for every morning and my psychologist has always told me to go out each day and find something that wows you. Something that is just amazing. So, sometimes when things have been getting too much and been overwhelming and I've needed a break, I'll go for a walk and clear my head and then i'll see a really beautiful flower and think wow that is just so beautiful. Appreciating little things like that can really make a world of difference."

''Finding little things in day to day life that sparks bring joy and makes you happy are so important.''

Wearing different hats

As a professional athlete, wife, and mother of three, the 41-year-old has got used to juggling a lot of balls.

''My life is incredible. It's non-stop, challenging, busy, fun, chaotic, and beautiful. I have an amazing family. We are a team. My husband always says that going to Tokyo and winning the gold is the goal for our team, for our whole family. Juggling life as a mother, wife, and athlete is challenging but I chose this. I chose my husband, he chose me, we chose to have children and we love it".

''It's a privileged to do what I do and I miss my family so much when I go away. But we chose this and we make it work. Its an adventure''. - Kerri Walsh Jennings

''Having this time in one place together has been a great chance for us to all be together. It's really been one of the silver linings. We are going and doing things we might not normally do and its just great to take this opportunity to pause and cherish each other and love other another. We have a lot of fun.''

Technology is also something that is monitored in the Walsh Jennings home.

''Joseph is eleven, Sundance is ten, and Scout is seven, and we realised when the kids were little that our little angels would turn into little devils after too much time watching things on the ipad, so our kids don't use much technology like that now, unless it's for schooling and using tools like zoom.

''I love social media because it allows me to connect with my girlfriends and speak to people all around the world, which i'm so grateful for, but I'm also careful.

"It can be consuming and addictive and sometimes I see my screen time on a Monday and think, oh that's not good but its always a work in progress. You just have to be so aware and conscious of what you do with your time and how you spend it.''

Virtual training

The volleyball legend might not be playing as much as she is used to, but her head is always in the game, largely due to the business she and husband, beach volleyball pro Casey Jennings created.

Their online beach volleyball platform, P1440 has allowed her to remain in touch with her community and deliver online programs, providing resources and helping with fitness, skills and training.

''With our virtual training camp sessions I've been talking to over 5000 people. And so many of them are talented junior athletes. It's been so awesome.

''We live to make the most of all 1440 minutes in each day and live with passion and purpose,'' - Kerri Walsh Jennings.

"I would encourage anyone, at any level to check it out and to have a play. It's a digital platform built around the culture and sport of beach volleyball and based around my families philosophy on life. We want people to be active and to have fun.