RIO DE JANEIRO — Kerri Walsh Jennings had to get over the disappointment. She had to get over the frustration. Above all, she had to get over herself, and she had less than 24 hours to do it.
“I didn’t sleep at all. My husband was kind of consoling me. He’s an athlete. He gets it,” she said. “I spent the day feeling very devastated. And then, at one point I thought, ‘This is absurd.’”
These were new emotions for Walsh Jennings, 38, the three-time gold medalist for the U.S. in beach volleyball. Tuesday night’s semifinal defeat against Brazil’s Agatha and Barbara was her first Olympic loss in 27 matches, knocking her and partner April Ross to the bronze medal match on Wednesday. But it wasn’t just a defeat – it was arguably the worst performance for Walsh Jennings in the last two Olympics.
She was her harshest critic. “They rose to the occasion. I certainly did not. There’s no excuse for it. Just terrible execution,” she said after the loss.
That feeling festered inside of her through a sleepless night and into a day where she wasn’t exactly getting hyped for the bronze medal match against Brazil’s top-ranked Larissa and Talita, who lost in the semifinals against eventual gold medalist Germany.
Until she cancelled her pity party.
“It was harder than I thought to get up for this match. There was a moment when … all night long, I didn’t sleep. And there was a moment when I said, ‘You have to stop feeling sorry for yourself. You have no one else to blame, and it’s an honor to have another day to fight for what you want,’” she said.
Ross was having her own issues with her team’s poor performance that cost them a spot in the Rio Olympics final. “It slowly got worse. I spent a lot of time in bed with my eyes closed, trying to visual this,” she said.
When it came to the bronze medal match, all she felt was tension. “That’s the hardest match to play in sports. One team is going home empty-handed, and one team is going home with a medal,” Ross said.
What helped both players find their focus, they said, was a pep talk from coach Marcio Sicoli.
“We’re here to finish on top. This is for your country. This is for your people. For your children. For your husband. For your family,” said Walsh Jennings, recalling his words. “He hit the heart, and he made it not about the match and about the end result. He made it out about doing our best.”
For Ross, the speech hit an emotional chord.
“I thought about our troops. Seriously … they go out, they fight. This is nothing,” she said, tearing up. “So to not get up for it would be a dishonor for our country.”
The first set of the bronze medal match was, frustratingly, more of the same from their semifinal loss: Walsh Jennings flubbing passes, disorganization on defense and a lack of momentum. They dropped it, 21-17.
In the second set, there was a turning point. A moment that both Ross and Walsh Jennings said was like a shot of confidence injected into their hearts.
“We were down 13-14. I got a dig. It sprayed. Kerri chased it down into the banner, got it up and got it over for 14-14. And that was the little bit of mojo we needed,” Ross said.
“I had no doubt we were going to win,” said Walsh Jennings, whose play sparked their 21-17 second-set win. “We still had to do it. That team is so good, and it requires the best in you to come back to beat them.”
Talita of Brazil said they could sense Walsh Jennings was taking over. “We made a lot of mistakes. And then we played against Kerri. She never gives up,” she said.
As bad as Walsh Jennings was in the semifinal loss, she was at her vintage best in the final set of the bronze medal match, dominating the net and controlling play. She had blocks for points on three of their final five points, including the last two.
“For me, that’s Kerri,” Ross said. “She was aggressive at the net. That changed throughout the match, too. We talked about that a little bit. When she’s aggressive, she’s just a beast at the net.”
The match, and the bronze medal, was theirs.
The last 24 hours were a swirl of emotions. No doubt, the loss to Brazil hurt. Not only because it was expected that Walsh Jennings would be playing for her fourth gold medal and first with new partner Ross – although topping Brazil on its home sand was a tall order – but because of how they lost.
From the outside, the bronze was a consolation prize.
From the inside, Walsh Jennings and Ross see it differently.
“I’ve really had to not focus these last three and a half years on the end result. If I’m waiting three and a half years to be happy, and see what we do, that’s a miserable ride. And I’ve lived it that way before,” Walsh Jennings said.
“It feels like a gold,” she said. “Once you win a semifinal and you play in a gold medal match, the gold medal match is easy. No disrespect, but you’re going to go home with a medal. The bronze medal match is the gnarliest match I’ve ever played in, in my career. Either you go home with a medal, or you get nothing.”
So winning a bronze medal feels like winning a gold?
“Times a million. I’m grateful of every gold medal. But the bronze medal match is times 10 as hard,” Walsh Jennings said. “It was a highlight of my athletic career, without a doubt.”
The status of her career was, of course, a big topic for Walsh Jennings after the match. She’s 38. She has a family, and business aspirations. She has three gold medals and a bronze to her credit in the Olympics.
“I haven’t spent one second thinking about that,” she protested. “I have little self-help books to focus on being present. That’s where my power is and that’s where my joy is. If I’m worried about tomorrow, I’m just not going to enjoy today.”
But now that the Olympics are over, she knows it’s time to map out the next four years.
“I’m so happy. I’m so excited to figure it out. I know what whatever I choose is going to be right for my family. If I move forward in this sport, I hope that it’ll be beside April. If it’s not, I will support her with all my heart,” she said.
No, it wasn’t gold, nor was it silver. But watching Walsh Jennings and Ross embrace one more time on the medal stand wearing bronze was watching two athletes that were absolutely elated to be leaving Rio with a victory and the hardware that came along with it, gladly exchanging the disappointment they dragged with them for 24 hours for something a bit smaller, shinier and more gratifying.
“It’s amazing what we’re capable of doing with the human spirit, the American spirit when your backs are in the corner and what’s possible when you stick together,” Walsh Jennings said.
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