RIO DE JANEIRO – This is a new feeling for Kerri Walsh Jennings.
After 26 straight victories in Olympic beach volleyball, the 38-year-old American sports icon lost a match, to Brazil’s Agatha and Barbara in the semifinals on Tuesday night. After an unprecedented run of three straight gold medals, she will play for a bronze.
How does it feel?
“It’s a terrible feeling,” she said.
“Good answer,” assured her partner, April Ross.
This is also a new feeling for the millions of fans Walsh Jennings has helped cultivate in the last 12 years while becoming one of the most successful American Olympians of all-time: Seeing her discuss a loss. Hearing her criticize her own efforts in defeat.
How did that sound?
Well, she didn’t call her opponents “cowards,” if that’s what you’re asking.
That’s where the bar is set for sportsmanship at the Rio Olympics, thanks to U.S. women’s national soccer team goalie Hope Solo’s petulant assessment of the Swedish team that eliminated them – calling them “a bunch of cowards” because “they didn’t want to play great soccer.”
Walsh Jennings? There are pole-vaulters who couldn’t clear that bar as well as she did.
“You have to pass the ball to win matches and I don’t know how many aces they got. Four per game maybe, on me? That’s unacceptable and inexcusable,” she said. “I’ve been served aggressively this whole tournament. And you can’t do anything without a pass. That’s what set the tone, and we didn’t get our mojo on anything else.”
To reset for a moment: This is a world class athlete. An icon. Someone that young volleyball players around the world honor with posters in their rooms. Someone trying to claim her fourth gold medal. And she blamed this devastating two-set loss on herself while praising her opponents, who victimized her rocky performance by targeting her on serves.
“As they should,” she said. “I wasn’t passing the ball. You see weakness, you go after it.
“My weakness tonight was passing the ball. And then we never gave ourselves breathing room. When you’re shanking balls, and you’re up a point or two and you shank a ball …”
Walsh Jennings paused.
“We can squash that team. We have in the past. I say that with so much respect for them. They’re very, very good. Tonight, they rose to the occasion. I certainly did not. There’s no excuse for it. Just terrible execution. They outplayed us pretty much in every way. Not out-hustled us, not out-hearted us, not out-teamworked us. Just outplayed us.”
Walsh Jennings wasn’t good in their semifinal loss. Frankly, she was bad; the kind of bad that’s uncomfortable to watch, because it’s so out of character and because it’s happening at the most crucial time. Balls would bounce off her hands and out of bounds. Routine plays were becoming inexplicable adventures.
“I envisioned them coming at me and I envisioned hitting every pass. I was just too quick with the ball. I just need to hold onto my platform a little bit more. I’ve learned this lesson the hard way, many, many times. Our coaches have trained us not to do that,” she said. “So to go to the finals of the Olympic Games and do that is absolutely devastating.”
Combine that with a deafeningly loud crowd of local fans and smart, efficient play from Agatha and Barbara, and it proved to be too much for the Americans.
“We know we had to fight with a three-time gold medal winner. We know she wanted a fourth,” said Agatha, through an interpreter.
She won’t get one.
Medal count is one way you measure an athlete. Stats are another. But there are also less empirical measurements. Like, for example, how they carry themselves after a victory and, especially, how they do the same after a defeat.
We’ve known Kerri Walsh Jennings to be an all-time great numerically and based on her trophy case. We’ve seen her be gracious in victory. And while we might have expected she’d react as she did to her first Olympic defeat, there’s something validating to have that expectation confirmed.
How many athletes that could realistically claim to be the best in the world at what they do would throw around words like “unacceptable” and “inexcusable” and “terrible” about themselves, with nary an ill word spoken about her opponents or officiating or the booing fans or a dozen other potential straw men? How many stars can mix confidence with culpability and have it sound genuine?
Not many. Which is what makes Kerri Walsh Jennings a success even in defeat.
So how about one more run at that fourth gold medal?
“I know I can, I don’t know if I will. I want to fix my match tomorrow and go home with a bronze medal,” she said.
We’d expect nothing less.
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