November 24, 2012

Sports Illustrated will announce its choice for Sportsman of the Year on Dec. 3. Here's one of the nominations for that honor by an SI writer. Please vote for your Inspiring Performer, Photo of The Year, and Moment of The Year on our Facebook page.

No athlete does the expected like Kerri Walsh Jennings, beach volleyball's steady superstar. They said she could carry Archbishop Mitty High to the California state finals; she led them to three. They said she could win a national title at Stanford; she won two. They said she could make the transition from hardwood to sand, and boy did she ever. Two months ago at the London Games, she won her third straight gold medal with teammate Misty May-Treanor, extending their Olympic unbeaten streak to 21 straight matches.

But no one expected her to be expecting; 1½ months after striking gold off the banks of St James's Park Lake, the 34-year-old Walsh Jennings squeezed the hand of another volleyball partner -- her husband, Casey Jennings -- and revealed on the Today Show that she was 11 weeks pregnant. She had essentially flouted one of beach volleyball's cardinal rules: she had three people on a two-man team. That bombshell is just the start of why she's my pick for Sportsman of the Year.

Don't think spiking for two is a big deal? Well, it wasn't for the embryo -- which, according to NBC's chief medical expert Nancy Snyderman, was as protected as a pinhead "inside a softball and then a kickball" behind Walsh Jennings's uterine wall and washboard abs. But it was no mean feat for Walsh Jennings, whose internal body tuning was thrown out of whack. In addition to being "moody and touchy," she professed to have experienced epic morning sickness -- the likes of which she never saw in her pregnancies with sons Joey, 3, and Sundance, 2. But you'd never know it by watching her fling her body around the sandlot. She made Michael Jordan and Pete Sampras, who likewise battled through storied fits of nausea on the way to championships, look as brave as toy soldiers.

It's no coincidence that the only person who approaches Walsh Jennings's discomfort threshold is reigning co-Sportsman Pat Summitt, who coached the entire 1990-91 season with baby boy, Tyler, on board -- though he was nearly, ahem, ejected during a recruiting flight -- and won her third national championship at Tennessee in five years. Childbirth didn't stop the prize-winning sprees of Kim Clijsters, who won three of her four grand slam singles titles after giving birth to daughter Jada; of Candace Parker, who helped USA basketball to a London gold three years after baby girl Lailaa was born; or of Dara Torres, whose two silver medals at the Beijing Games' swimming relays came two years after welcoming daughter Tessa into the world.

Still, long maternity leaves preceded the athletic triumphs of Parker, Clijsters and Torres. Walsh Jennings? She played with a fetus on board for the highest prize in beach volleyball. That makes her more than just another inspiration to a world of women in their professional primes. That makes her a symbol of hope to a silent minority of amateurs who find themselves in the unfortunate position of having to choose between their baby and their scholarship. At Clemson, at least seven student-athletes chose the scholarship, according to a 2007 ESPN Outside the Lines report. As Title IX defeats go, this was most crushing.

But Walsh Jennings's gold? That was, well, a beachhead. Of course, she's not stopping there. May-Treanor might've called it a career after London -- and to start a family, of all things -- but Walsh Jennings plans on being back in a bikini for the 2016 Rio Games. To prepare, she's reconnected with an old partner (Nicole Branagh, who filled in for May-Treanor while she contemplated a post-Beijing retirement) and until a few months ago, kept up her competitive commitments. Days after the Olympics, Walsh Jennings and Branagh came in ninth at a pro stop in Poland. Weeks later, they finished runners up at events in Cincinnati and Santa Barbara, both times losing to Jennifer Kessy and April Ross -- the team May-Treanor and Walsh Jennings blew off of the London sand in the gold medal round. Walsh Jennings isn't competing anymore, but she still trains like a madwoman, maintaining a rigorous regimen of yoga, weightlifting and cardio -- one she aims to sustain until her due date.

In an age and a country where reproductive rights are once again under siege, where the gender double standard is buckling but unbowed, Walsh Jennings is a standard bearer whose keen of timing clearly isn't limited to the court. She changes the perception of what women can and can't do by merely doing the expected. She's a Sportswoman through and through.

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