When you think of women’s beach volleyball, chances are that sand and bikinis come to mind. This sport has been synonymous with the racy dress code since its 1996 induction as an Olympic medal event. It’s a sport where the scantily clad athletes will no doubt garner some attention. But, does the sexy attire detract from the true athleticism of these fierce competitors? For top women beach volleyball players like Olympic gold medalist Kerri Walsh-Jennings and silver medalist April Ross, the answer is: No. For them, the bikini is simply a work uniform for their profession.
As they enter this weekend’s AVP Championship undefeated, here are five ways Walsh-Jennings and Ross are not only defying the stereotypical sex-symbol undertone but showing why they’ll be the top team to beat in 2016:
1. Updating the old and encouraging the new
In 2012, due to pressure from conservative countries, the International Olympic Committee changed its bylaws that required female beach volleyball players to wear bikinis. Women’s Rights Leagues argued the sport uses the athlete’s bodies as sexual objects to bring in more revenue.
"It's something I feel empowered by, not distracted with. I'm not a sex symbol; I'm an athlete. I want to be streamlined out there," Walsh-Jennings told ESPN. Ross also argued that fans tend to overlook the issue, “Once they see the athleticism of our sport they’re hooked on it,” she said.
Even though Walsh-Jennings said she’ll stick to her sexy bikini, she applauded the amendment. Players can now wear shorts and sleeved tops allowing teams from countries with more modest religious or cultural standards to qualify.
"I think it's fantastic," she said. "I don't want anything as trivial as a uniform to keep anyone from chasing their dreams."
2. Showing why they're proud of their bodies
Walsh-Jennings garnered significant attention by posing nude in ESPN’s ‘Body Issue’ both before and after the birth of her third child in 2013. As a result of her athletic mentality, she was able to bounce back to her signature athletic body quickly. Her post-baby pictures were shot just nine weeks after her daughter was born according to People magazine, a feat that is unattainable for most.
“I was really, really nervous. I felt exposed, not just physically, but with all of my insecurities,” said Walsh-Jennings. “I'm still a critic of my body -- I'm still a woman -- but I respect my body more than I have in my life,” she told ESPN W.
She doesn’t see herself as a sex symbol but still says she’s proud of her body.
“It gave me three beautiful children. It got me a scholarship and degree from Stanford University. It has taken me around the world and to four Olympics and helped me achieve my dreams.”
Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh-Jennings are said to be the greatest beach volleyball team of all time. But even so, Walsh-Jennings wouldn’t trade Ross for her old partner. And for Ross, the feeling is mutual.
“I had such a great time playing with Jen, and I’m so happy with how we did, but this is my team now,” Ross said. “I’m 100 percent committed. There would be no thought in my head regarding changing teammates at this point.”
“I’m committed so much with April,” Walsh-Jennings echoed.
Walsh-Jennings and Ross have a passion for growing the game and the AVP after the sport faced bankruptcy in recent years. “We love it so much and it’s such an authentic love and passion for the sport,” said Walsh-Jennings at the Bloomberg Sports Business Summit in New York.
Ross adds, “We’re here to prove US beach volleyball is the best in the world and we’re not going away.”
"I don't want to be one of the greatest female athletes of all time, I want to be one of the greatest athletes of all time," says Walsh-Jennings.
5. Vying for a perfect record
Walsh-Jennings and Ross have yet to lose in 2014, boasting an amazing 31-0 record thus far. They’ve won all six events on the AVP tour and are favorites to win the AVP Championships beginning tomorrow in Huntington Beach, CA. It’s the final stop on the AVP domestic tour and then the potential Olympians travel to Brazil for the FIVB Grand Slam in Sao Paulo.
The dynamic duo has one goal: Kick butt in each tournament and win the gold medal in Rio at the 2016 Olympics.
Walsh-Jennings adds “… I'm looking forward to the challenge of becoming the best in the world with a new partner.”