It’s time for Kerri Walsh Jennings to book a flight to Rio de Janeiro.
Walsh Jennings and beach volleyball partner April Ross mathematically qualified for the 2016 Olympics on Wednesday at the Cincinnati Open, where they won their first match. In order to qualify for Rio, beach volleyball teams must play in 12 Olympic qualifying tournaments and rank in the top 15 of the FIVB Beach Volleyball Olympic Ranking when the final rankings are released on June 13. Walsh Jennings and Ross are currently sixth in those rankings, and only one other U.S. team is eligible to pass their point total, locking them into one of two U.S. spots.
Rio will mark Walsh Jennings’s fourth Olympics on the beach (fifth in total), and first with Ross, after the retirement of longtime teammate Misty May-Treanor in 2012.
During Olympic qualifying, the 37-year-old mother of three spoke to SI.com about her mindset ahead of the upcoming Olympics, the highlights of her career, the landscape of women’s sports and calling it quits in volleyball.
Kayla Lombardo: Will it be strange for you not to be with May-Treanor at this year’s Summer Games?
Kerri Walsh Jennings: No, I’ve been living that reality for a long time now. This is my third year with April, so I’ve had plenty of practice with her. I’m just excited for the newness of everything, for the challenge of everything and for the excitement of it all.
KL: After winning three straight Olympic gold medals, how do you still get yourself excited to train and compete?
KWJ: I love this sport with all my heart, so the motivation comes very naturally. With things that you love, you don’t need outside motivation. That doesn’t mean it’s easy all the time. I’m doing this for a very clear reason, and that’s because I have more and better inside me and I’m curious to see what that looks like. I’m doing this alongside someone who I love and respect in April Ross, and we’re in it to win it.
KL: Was the comeback from your shoulder surgery in September any harder than you expected?
KWJ: No, but mentally, it’s always a challenge. There’s just unknowns that come with surgery and this was a new injury for me, so there were the unknowns in that. But other than that, no. I have an amazing surgeon and an amazing crew to bring me back and better. With coming back from surgery, it’s just patience that’s required to come back right and to not make any missteps. But that’s why I trust my people so much. I say my prayers and do my work and do my part and know it’s going to end up OK.
KL: After competing in four Olympics, which Summer Games would you say was your favorite and why?
KWJ: I feel like Rio is going to be the best for many reasons, but up to this point I would say that London was my favorite, by far. That journey I had with Misty to play in the Olympics with her and to have won all three. To have won our last one together, and to do it as a mommy, compounded to make it a very meaningful tournament. To win when my daughter was in my tummy just makes the story even that much more cute.
KL: Relating to your partnership with Dick’s Sporting Goods and their initiative to give jobs to financially strapped Olympic-hopefuls, what is your opinion on the wage gap that exists between men and women in most sports?
KWJ: I appreciate the evolution and direction that we’re going in sports and with women’s sports that we’re getting more attention in the media that we need and deserve. I believe the more TV networks that pick us up and the more that we’re in the limelight, the numbers will come and we’ll be less of a novelty and more of a reality. Of course I want equality and I want women to get what we deserve. All of us are pioneers in our own way, and I think it’s really important for the fight to be made. And it’s not pitting men against women, it’s more just women getting paid what they deserve.
KL: What is your opinion about what the U.S. women’s national soccer team is attempting to do regarding its wage dispute with U.S. Soccer?
KWJ: The U.S. women’s national soccer team is indicative of the best and the most challenging part of what women go through. As athletes, they’re dominant, and they have been for a long time. They’re underpaid and under-marketed, so I feel like that’s just an opportunity to grow as a country in awareness, and I’m glad that they’re leading the charge. Their voices will eventually change the life of my daughter and their future kids, and that’s really important.
KL: Your sport is unique in that women often earn similar wages, if not higher ones, as men. What do you attribute that to?
KWJ: I don’t know, and I don’t know when that happened. But I am very proud to be in a sport where there is equal prize money. I think that’s as it should be. The women are a draw just as the men, and I appreciate that the powers that be recognize that. We need to keep elevating the money and keep incentivizing people to keep coming out. There’s just so much opportunity in the sport now and I want it to be recognized on all levels. But I’m proud of volleyball, always have been. It’s a very special community and very inclusive, and I think that’s fantastic.
KL: Do you foresee a time for professional volleyball, particularly for women, when it rises to a level that it receives national recognition outside the Olympics?
KWJ: I think we’re baby-stepping there. I think it’s been an ugly process to getting where we’re going to be, which is mainstream. The numbers support it being a mainstream sport, but when it comes to public recognition, it’s pretty niche. But I feel like that’s going to change just because the demand is changing and the sport is growing to meet the demand that both the men and the women are creating. The NCAA picking up beach volleyball, as a sport, that’s only going to be better for the sport and incentivize NBC or Fox or whoever to pick up our sport because there’s going to be more dollars behind it. My goal is to kick butt with April in Rio and to remind people of how rad our sport is. It’s not just once every four years, it’s every single year, year in and out, and America leads the charge. So that’s a big part of my goal. And I do believe we’re getting there. I feel like we need bold people who can see the value in our sport to see that it’s not just about athletic competition, but that it’s about life and there are so many nuanced and beautiful life stories in the sport. And then we need people to jump on-board with us and be partners to make it grow.
KL: What would your ideal landscape of women’s volleyball look like in say five or ten years?
KWJ: The more opportunity, the better. I would love to see beach volleyball, alongside indoor volleyball, to be the premiere sport for women. I would love for the AVP (U.S. professional beach volleyball league) to be an option where people can make a true living and not just do it as a hobby. Prize money needs to improve greatly for people to make it a consistent living. Ideally, we’d try to fit the UFC model where we have great TV coverage and the best in the world come to compete here in America, but you need partners to do that. So once April and I capitalize on this summer and all the coverage we’re going to get, it will just reinforce to people that they need to get involved with this sport because it’s too good to pass up.
KL: Will you call it quits in 2016?
KWJ: No idea. I honestly have zero idea. I’m loving the journey so much. The other day, I was like, ‘it wouldn’t surprise me if I were competing in the next Olympics,’ and I said it in full honesty. I’m putting everything I have into the next however many months leading up to the gold medal match and all the way through until I retire, so we shall see.