For Olympic beach volleyball great Kerri Walsh Jennings, 36, a lot has changed since the London Olympics.
In April 2013, she gave birth to her third child (daughter Scout joined brothers Joseph, 5, and Sundance, 4). “It helped me appreciate my body as a normal person and not an elite athlete,” she says of her pregnancies.
On the court she has switched sides (she now plays on the right) and changed partners, teaming with April Ross after Misty May-Treanor’s post- Olympic retirement. “Misty and I were yin and yang,” Walsh Jennings says. “She was very Zen and I was very cheerleader, but with April, we are both really high energy.” The new duo has been a hit so far, winning the first event of this year’s FIVB tour, the Fuzhou (China) Open on April 27 and the AVP tour’s the St. Petersburg Open on June 1.
One thing hasn’t changed for Walsh Jennings: her wicked spike. The 6' 3" three- time gold medalist revealed the four secrets behind her stinging swing—but only after dodging one last question: What would it be like receiving one of her own kills? She laughs and says only, “I’ll survive never knowing.”
Walsh Jennings says the last two steps in her three-step approach are most crucial. “That’s where you generate speed, power and, ultimately, get your feet to the ball.” Once in the right spot, she crouches, then explodes. “The lower you bend your knees, the higher you will jump,” she says.
As he reaches the apex of her jump, Walsh Jennings tracks the ball with her left arm while pulling her right arm back. The key is keeping her elbow high, creating the look of drawing back on a bow and shooting an arrow.
How solidly Walsh Jennings makes contact with the ball determines the speed and direction of the hit. So she spreads her palm wide and stiffens the muscles. “Attack the ball with a huge, strong right hand,” she says. “The stronger your hand is on contact, the better control you have and the more force you can put on the ball.”
The touchdown prepares you for what comes next. Says Walsh Jennings, “The more balanced you are when you land, the better chance you have to play the next ball if your opponent happens to block or dig you.”
Big Hit: Walsh Jennings and her partner will represent the U.S. in the ASICS World Series of Beach Volleyball July 22–27 in Long Beach, Calif.