20.06.2019 - Hamburg
So here’s something the competition at this year’s World Championships should sit up and take notice of: Kerri Walsh Jennings and her new teammate Brooke Sweat are enjoying beach volleyball for the first time in a long, long time.
Three years to be exact.
“I haven’t had fun since Rio,” an honest Kerri admits.
That’s way too long for someone like Kerri Walsh Jennings to not be having fun.
For both three-time world champion Kerri and Brooke, who head to this year’s World Championships in Hamburg as wildcards, being on the sand with a smile has been a long time coming.
The experienced duo have suffered from the perennial shoulder problem that haunts many beach pros. Endless serving, swinging, spiking takes its toll. Especially on two stalwarts of the game who have competed in over 200 international events between them.
But now those problems are well and truly behind them. And their results speak for themselves. In just nine tournaments since joining forces late last year, Kerri and Brooke have won four medals on the World Tour, including gold in Jinjiang in May.
Success, of course, plays a part in ensuring those smiles stay upright. But for the pair it goes beyond winning and losing. The physical and mental barriers that proved to be such frustrating obstacles in the past have disappeared. And a fit and focused Kerri Walsh Jennings and Brooke Sweat are quite rightly a team to be fearful when the championships kick-off in Germany on June 28.
“After Rio I played in fear for about a year-and-a-half and then got hurt again. I then played in doubt,” explains Kerri, who won bronze at the Olympics on the Copacabana. “Now I believe I hope I’ve turned that corner. Now it’s just fun. I’m now like ‘what were you worried about?’ Just play volleyball, be who you are and come together with your partner and enjoy it. And I am, it’s fun – it sincerely feels that way which is awesome.”
At 40 years of age, and with the injuries behind her and banished from her consciousness, Kerri believes she’s back in the positive frame of mind that she had when she first started her career.
“When it all began I was enjoying it – and my goal is to finish how I started: just enjoy the game and aspire for the big dreams playfully and with all my heart,” she says. “Happily, now I’m back to that point.
“It doesn’t surprise me that I’m having fun again – it just surprised me that I was in a funk for three years. That was the hardest part. I had never had that in my life before. But I think when you know what you want in life, and why you chase it, you get through these things. All I know is that I lived in that bad space for a little too long.”
It’s a similar story for Brooke. Shoulder surgery and partner swapping had threatened to stall her career and the happiness that goes with regular, successful and consistent volleyball. Between the 2017 and 2018 seasons she was restricted to just 12 tournaments. And then Kerri came calling.
“I’ve been through plenty of injuries over the three-and-a-half years,” she says. “Battling these and trying to get to full fitness has been tough. It’s been baby steps to get to this point. I didn’t know what my journey was going to look like until Kerri picked me up and I’m so thankful for to her.
“I’m now playing free and I think that when we play our best we have the most fun. So if there was one word to describe our situation right now, it would be fun.”
The team’s form going into the World Championships is among the best on the World Tour right now – not bad considering that in four of the nine tournaments they came kicking and screaming through the country quota and qualification.
“One thing’s for sure is that we have earned our wildcard,” says Kerri. “We’ve not earned it on our past achievements. I think we would have felt a bit guilty about that otherwise. We’re on an upward trend.
“We always knew that our starting position would mean a certain path because of our points situation but the more we’ve played the more we’ve improved. We took the extra games as a blessing – there’s no better practice than in competitive matches.”
The team’s outlook is a refreshing combination of being honored to be able to compete at a World Championships and genuine gratitude that they have found an almost instantaneous connection on and off the court that has led to an exciting anticipation for the upcoming championships.
“To be a world champ takes belief in yourself and your team,” says Kerri. “We have that 100 per cent.
“It’s a belief and a knowing that we have all the tools. It’s not hopeful – it’s there for us.”
With this kind of optimism, who would really bet against Kerri and Brooke going all the way in Hamburg?
Whatever the result, they’re going to do so having fun.