Beach volleyball star Kerri Walsh Jennings wants to play on Sundays, so often the final day of tournaments. And when she gets there with new partner April Ross, she wants to have the same physical power she had when the tourney started. That objective has Jennings trying new workouts on the road this season and doing whatever she can to get back onto the sand after an injury.
The three-time Olympic gold medalist had a new training plan at the start of this season. But a dislocated right shoulder put her on a different tact.
“The first two weeks [after the injury] I was focused on healing, then I started doing resistance against the wall, but not dynamic,” Jennings tells SI.com. “I have been working around things to get my core and legs stronger.”
All along, Jennings planned to be ready for the Aug. 21-23 event in Long Beach, Calif., as she and Ross work toward the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
Before the injury, Jennings, 36, added in an extra day of weights. Previously she had always worked in one good heavy lift, but had planned to see a “light lift on easy playing days on a Thursday or Friday so I can keep my strength up.”
But, as she said before the injury, “as the season wears on, you adjust to how your body is feeling and how your body is breaking down.”
While she eases the shoulder back into the rotation with stabilization work, bands and eventually hitting, Jennings doesn’t lose sight of the rest of her training. “Yeah, I’m busting my butt in the gym,” she says. “I’m working around things to get my core and legs stronger. A lot of leg [work] to get my jump and foot speed to combat what I won’t have up top.”
The work, though, takes different forms as Jennings’ travel schedule when playing varies from 20-hour trips to New York, to a week in China or even two months in Europe. With a trainer helping out with workouts, Jennings knows she has to have plans that fit no matter the location.
“Ideally, if there is a gym outside of the hotel I try to track it down,” she says. “Generally I have to rely on a hotel with nautilus and dumbbells. It is what it is. I will run the stairs or hallways of hotels.”
She also plans Pilates, which can be done anywhere, and mat and ballwork. When she struggles to find a good weight room, her on-the-road luggage always includes TRX bands, allowing her to hit the beach with body weight workouts and TRX.
Balancing workouts with competition during tournaments has proven tricky. “It is so interesting,” she says. “When at home we will have double and triple days all the time. When I get into competition, I want to be fresh and play good volleyball. It is like a mental game. For me, I am going to try something new, add another workout and see how I feel.
“You need to be humble enough to keep it and push through, or if to much, adjust. It is so important to listen to your body and sometimes the hardest work you have to do is chill out and recover and fine tune.”
Jennings works in mental components throughout the day, starting in the morning—when a crying baby doesn’t interrupt—with deep breaths and thoughts of five things she is thankful for. “I start the day with gratitude and my intentions for the day,” she says. “I will put feet on the ground, reach my hands to the sky and to God and start the day.”Adding in meditating and Versus brain training has been a fun addition to her training routine. “The mental side of my job the next two years is going to be the game changer,” she says.
The shoulder injury has upped that mental focus. “I want to control what I’m going through in my head,” Jennings says. She recently met with her sports psychologist so that she could “lay everything out there and not feel judged and work through things that take me to a better place.”
Watching video and spending more time on the Versus brain training has helped her stay sharp, even in this “frustrating” time.
Keeping her body right includes Jennings’ focus on nutrition. “Sometimes I am just at the mercy of the country I’m in,” she says. “I certainly pack my snacks.” From turkey jerky to oatmeal and designer weigh bars to protein powder, Jennings packs plenty of foods, even sending a package of food ahead when needed.
When she goes to Asia, Jennings packs protein—“I don’t trust the meat”—and in Europe she steers clear of the cheese and bread to focus on lean meats and salads.“It is such an advantage to train at home, I have everything I depend on,” she says. Jennings says it can get difficult on her body when she starts getting low on the things she relies on. For example, on a recent trip to China, she started running out of her Almond Breeze almondmilk. “I tried to ration it and it was gone in two days,” she says. “It gets hard for me, I have to supplement because I’m not getting everything I am getting at home. I love stuff that is going to enhance my performance and help me live a healthy lifestyle.” The almond milk, for Jennings, has proven a key part of that at-home or on-the-road nutrition component, part of her protein shakes that her kids even get into like a “science experiment every morning.”
With all the food and training equipment in her bags, it is a good thing Jennings doesn’t have much else in her must-have list. She brings Asics bikinis and Oakley shades. “Those are the essentials,” she says. She packs one bikini and pair of sunglasses in her carry-on just in case. “I can survive on that forever,” she says. “I will be a little bit chilly."
One of those bikinis, though, is always all white. When she played with Misty May-Treanor the pair would wear black in the final, similar to Tiger Woods’ chosen red. “April likes to wear Sunday whites,” Jennings says. “A lot of finals are on Sunday, so white is the new black for me.”
She also packs workout shoes for the gym, lounging-around clothes and books—she loves heading to her local bookstore for lighthearted historical fiction or a self-help book before a big trip.
For culture, her focus is volleyball. But she also knows there are some key points of interest not to miss, such as Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin—a city she calls “beautiful”—or monuments in Thailand. Though, visiting some places so many times in her career, her travel thinking is led by the logistics of volleyball.
“That is just one of the challenges of the job,” she says about life on the road. “You have to adapt, be nimble. You are living out of a suitcase, so deal with style, nutrition and training with a smile on your face.”
That smile can’t fade when the injuries come. That’s when everything she has trained for comes into play. That’s when the drive for Sunday keeps her going.
Tim Newcomb covers stadiums, design and gear for Sports Illustrated. Follow him on Twitter at @tdnewcomb.