By JULIE JAG
LONDON – Just like old times, one more time.
Former Scotts Valley resident Kerri Walsh Jennings and partner Misty May-Treanor looked every bit as in sync in winning their third straight Olympic beach volleyball gold medal Wednesday night as they had winning the previous two. But this one meant a little bit more.
“This feels very new for me. It feels way different than it ever has,” Walsh said. “It was the best. We saved the best for last.”
In the sand at Horse Guards Parade, a temporary venue surrounded by buildings steeped in history, beach volleyball’s most recognizable pair wrote the conclusion to their own. They added the 2012 medal to their collection from ’04 and ’08 with a 21-16, 21-16 victory over fellow Team USA players Jennifer Kessy and April Ross. Then, with May-Treanor sticking with her promise that this would be her last match as a professional, they closed the book.
“Emotionally, we have lived so much life together the past 12 years but especially the last two. We’ve really come together and we’ve been so connected,” Walsh said. “We really wanted to win a gold medal together, but we wanted to do it in a certain fashion. And we wanted to stay connected and create this bond that is unbreakable and to really cherish every moment, and we did that.”
As soon as Ross’ serve at match point sailed over her head, Walsh raised both hands in the air in victory. Then, faster than one of her hard-driven kills, the tears started falling. She raced over to the stands, where husband Casey Jennings picked her 6-foot-3 frame off the ground, then she, in turn, picked up her two young boys. Later on the medal stand, surrounded by Kessy and Ross and the bronze-medal winning pair of Juliana Silva and Larissa Franca of Brazil, both cried and sang like they’d never won before.
Truth is, they know how to step up on the podium almost as well as they know how to dig and block. Since they first partnered in 2001, they’ve won 40 of the 78 international matches and only missed out on the top four in 14 of them. In Olympic play, they went undefeated, dropping their first and only set in 12 years and 43 sets to the Austrian team earlier this week.
After they won their debut match of these Olympics, opponent and four-time Games veteran Natalie Cook of Australia dubbed Walsh and May-Treanor beach volleyball royalty.
“Just the amount of tournaments they’ve won – I know how much energy it takes to win a tournament – and for them to do it for years and years is impressive,” agreed Kessy. “My hat’s off to them. That is ridiculous in the end.”
Before they gave up their crowns, May-Treanor and Walsh wanted to add a little more gold to the treasury.
But everything wasn’t the same as they had left it in Beijing. May-Treanor ruptured her achilles while practicing for the show “Dancing with the Stars” and was trying to make a comeback with Nicole Branagh. Walsh, meanwhile, had taken some time off the court to give birth to her two boys – Joseph, 3, and Sundance, 2. When she returned to the sand, she tried to pair with a couple other partners, but none of them matched what she had with May-Treanor.
It took some needling, but in 2011, Walsh finally convinced May-Treanor to make another medal run.
Even after both committed to returning, though, their mojo didn’t. Walsh remained the dangerous net player she had been even when she was in high school at St. Francis in San Jose. May-Treanor still had indescribable defensive instincts. Together, though, they struggled to find their winning form, especially in tournament championships.
“I didn’t really understand what peaking meant, ever, until this time around,” said Walsh, who plans to find a new partner for 2016. “In the prior Olympics we didn’t have to peak, we were just feeling good. But this time around, we had a really terrible year up until about a month ago, and we had to work really hard to get where we are now. It was all emotional, all very mental, and we were in a place we’ve never been before.
“I truly believe going through those challenges the way we did made us even stronger than we were before.”
Once they reached London, the pair wasted no time digging their chemistry up from the sand inside Horse Guards Parade. With each win, their confidence and comfort level grew. It practically skyrocketed after a come-from-behind win over the Chinese team of Chen Xue and Xi Zhang in the semifinals.
Kessy and Ross, a team they’d beaten twice in three meetings this year and hold a 28-5 record against, didn’t give up the medal easily. They clung to within a point of their opponent for at least half of each set. When the pressure was on, though, Walsh and May-Treanor just had too much history together.
“It’s hard to stay on top. Winning the first gold medal, we were young, it was sweet, it was like ‘OK, we did it.’ Winning back to back gold medals is very difficult – the target’s huge,” May-Treanor said. “To go for a three-peat, I don’t know if you could write this script the way that it turned out.
“But, we believed.”