A line in the sand

A line in the sand

In May, Kerri Walsh Jennings left the AVP tour and split with her 2016 Olympic partner, April Ross, because she believes the current power structure is preventing athletes from making a living wage in beach volleyball. Now, she's trying to change that.

The white-gray skies beyond Manhattan Beach's 14th Street volleyball courts blur into the Pacific, deceiving the eye and erasing the surfers paddling out to catch waves. It's hazy, humid and too cold for this time of year. June gloom, as they call it in Los Angeles, upbeat SoCal singsong for "Where the hell is summer?" But if June brings the gloom this too-early Monday morning, Kerri Walsh Jennings arrives with the sunshine.

"Good morning, beautiful people," says the five-time Olympian. She drops a bag of volleyballs onto the sand and hugs her coaches and new teammate, Nicole Branagh. Despite the chill in the air, she zips off her hoodie and jogs toward the water, her tight blonde braid whipping from shoulder to shoulder. Twenty feet from the surf, she stops, plants her bare feet in the sand and begins a balletic routine of stretches and breathing, centering herself before returning to the bustle of the court.

For the past nine years, Walsh Jennings has come to this place to hone her body and her game in preparation for her sport's quadrennial peak at the Summer Olympics. Here, she finds comfort in consistency and routine. There's the same baby blue lifeguard tower, the same southerly view of Manhattan Beach pier, the same steep stone stairs that mark the beginning and end of each workout.

But the thing is, had last August gone to plan, had Walsh Jennings and her then-partner, April Ross, left Rio de Janeiro with gold medals, she might not be here this morning, chasing a fourth Olympic gold and fighting for the future of the sport that's made her an international star.

"Had April and I won in Rio, it would have been easier to say I'm done, go out on top, fairytale ending like Peyton Manning, or Kobe with the 60-point game," Walsh Jennings, 38, says. "I believe in happy endings. I believe I'm going to have that happy ending. That's my mission for the next four years, to dominate on the court and to help the world realize how amazing our sport is so they'll get behind us and help us to grow."

But after a public split in May with Ross and the Association of Volleyball Professionals, the 34-year-old U.S. domestic tour where she built a career, it's understandable if Walsh Jennings feels instead as if it's her against the world.

Kerri Walsh Jennings on why she split from the AVP tour and her 2016 Olympic partner, April Ross -- and how she's now committed to winning another Olympic gold medal in Tokyo in 2020.

The most recent chapter of Walsh Jennings' career began with a whisper. Moments after she and longtime partner Misty May-Treanor, who was set to retire, won their third gold medal at the 2012 London Games, Walsh Jennings gave a conciliatory hug to her opponent, April Ross. In an unplanned moment that held promise to become legendary in its foresight, she whispered in Ross' ear, "Now, let's go win gold in Rio."

The next four years are as well documented as any in Walsh Jennings' career: She gave birth to her third child, daughter Scout, (Walsh Jennings was five weeks pregnant during her gold-medal match in London); made a move from the left to the right side of the court to accommodate her new partnership with Ross; had a fifth surgery to repair her right shoulder after tearing the labrum from the bone; then had the first Olympic loss of her beach volleyball career in Brazil in 2016.

"We were capable of winning gold and we knew we could," Ross says nearly 10 months later. "But we never blamed each other for anything." Instead, less than 24 hours after their semifinal defeat to Agatha Bednarczuk and Barbara Seixas of Brazil, the teammates regrouped, refocused and defeated Brazilians Larissa Franca and Talita Antunes to win bronze.

One week later, they capitalized on the momentum of that match to dominate the World Series of Beach Volleyball in Long Beach, California, and win their fifth international title of 2016. Until that point, Walsh Jennings hadn't been ready to commit to another four-year cycle, but she also wasn't prepared to call it a career. "It had always been in my plans to go to Tokyo, but Kerri didn't know if she would retire or keep playing," Ross says. "I wanted to go to Tokyo together. We still had a lot of potential."

Kerri Walsh Jennings lost the first Olympic match of her career in the semifinal of the 2016 Games. Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY Sports

In Long Beach, with her Olympic heartbreak beginning to mend, Walsh Jennings started visualizing herself competing in 2020 and picking up the fourth gold medal she left lying on Copacabana Beach. "I had to take a moment after Rio," Walsh Jennings says. "I'm a mother to three beautiful kids. I'm a wife. My journey is not all about me. I still want to chase these big, beautiful dreams. But I need to do so being mindful of my tribe. That's why the pause was necessary."

The first year in any Olympic cycle is meant to be a reset, a slow jog at the beginning of a 48-month ramp-up to the Games. For Walsh Jennings, it also has become a time to recover from the hangover that inevitably sets in once the intensity of the Olympics wears off. "It can't be gangbusters for four years straight," she says.

But as the teammates were deciding their long-term future together, players began negotiating a new four-year deal with the AVP. Ownership knew negotiations could become tenuous, as several players had expressed concern that the tour's prize money and number of annual events weren't growing at a rate that justified pledging exclusivity to the AVP, as they had been asked to do in 2013.

Kerri Walsh Jennings won Olympic gold medals in Athens (2004), Beijing (2008) and London (2012), before winning bronze in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. Melissa Lyttle for ESPN

There were other concerns, too, and one week after their Long Beach win, Walsh Jennings made some of those grievances public when she wrote a 950-word Facebook post informing fans that she and her husband, Casey Jennings, a longtime player on the AVP, had decided to boycott the tour's Chicago Championships in September because of the way in which two experimental rule changes -- that a team must be serving to win a match point and that a serve that hits the net and lands inbounds will be served again instead of winning a point for the serving team -- were being implemented at the event.

"I am not a fan of either of the rule changes, but that is not why I am sitting out," Walsh Jennings wrote in the post. "I am BOYCOTTING because of the fact that the AVP ownership decided to change the rules of the game WITHOUT honestly or meaningfully discussing it with the Player Committee or the athletes on tour ... In my opinion, this is utterly disrespectful of each and every athlete who virtually pays to work for the sport we all love and it is utterly disrespectful to the game itself ... The sport is strong. In order for the AVP to build upon this momentum and grow successfully, it is imperative that the players and management are on the same page."

The post was shared nearly 1,000 times and drew headlines in the days leading up to the tournament, threatening both her future with the tour and her partnership with Ross. "In our sport, the athletes have very little say, so we use the media, hopefully professionally and respectfully," Walsh Jennings says.

The AVP stood by its rule changes and, in a statement, president Donald Sun said that while the tour has "nothing but the utmost respect for Kerri as a person and a world class athlete," the tour is a "relatively young, evolving business" that "must continue to be nimble and evaluate ways to improve our game for fans and the brands and networks that support us and our players."

Knowing fans would turn out in Chicago to see Ross and Walsh Jennings play and not wanting to disappoint them, Ross chose to play in the tournament. She partnered with first-year AVP player Kelly Reeves and finished seventh. "I felt like I could support my decision while supporting and respecting [Walsh Jennings'] decision, but she felt a wedge was coming between us," Ross says. "As the AVP stuff got heated, the wedge grew and grew and it drove us apart."

Kerri Walsh Jennings, with husband, Casey Jennings, and their three kids Joey (in back), Sundance and Scout (in front). Melissa Lyttle for ESPN

IT'S MID-AFTERNOON in mid-June and Walsh Jennings is kneeling in the turf behind her Manhattan Beach home, a bucket of chalk by her knees. "I'm going to draw a picture of Scouty girl," she says to her youngest, who's now 4. She pulls a piece of pink chalk from the bucket and begins to draw on the short concrete wall that borders the family's backyard. "Pink eyes. Cute nose. Big smile." Nearby, sons Joey, 7, and Sundance, 5, work on a drawing of a snake with dad. Volleyballs and baseballs freckle the faux grass. A blue tarp is folded in the corner of the lot, remnants of a recent backyard campout.

When the Jennings designed this house, they opted for a narrower frame in exchange for a larger backyard. Five months ago, it is here that they began hosting weekly meetings to help players stay informed during negotiations with the AVP. "The goal of every meeting was to give information," Walsh Jennings says. "We focused on the top players because we wanted the influencers. The first meeting was huge. I invited the AVP, [World Series of Beach Volleyball founder] Leonard Armato and the chair of the board of USA Volleyball to come and lay out their plans and vision for the sport. I wanted to see a growth plan for the next four years." (USA Volleyball declined to comment for the story.)

It had been four years since Donald Sun, a former tech company exec and high school volleyball player, purchased the AVP out of bankruptcy for a reported $2 million and promised to do what former ownership was unable to do: keep the tour afloat and help to grow the sport domestically. In 2009, one year before the AVP filed for bankruptcy for the second time in 30 years, the tour featured more than $4.5 million in prize money. In the four years since Sun bought the AVP, it had expanded from two events to eight and annual prize money had increased to $1.2 million, which the players deemed insufficient to demand exclusivity.

"My goal is to fight for the players to have opportunities to play on the off weekends," Walsh Jennings says. "If the AVP is not playing on a weekend in July, let the athletes play on the NVL. One of the worst things about volleyball for the past 30 years is that everyone wants to hoard over their little fiefdom."

“It's not sustainable. I want our sport to be professional, and right now it's a hobby.”

Kerri Walsh Jennings

Players wanted the opportunity to compete domestically in other events, including on the six-year-old National Volleyball League, which was formed in 2010 by former player Albert Hannemann. Few players in the U.S. have the means to compete internationally, so the NVL, which has been largely considered the minor leagues to the AVP, represents their only other real opportunity to make money.

Players made the same argument during negotiations in 2013, but most acquiesced and signed the contracts. And although the AVP granted dispensation, or exemption from the rule, for players to compete in FIVB (International Volleyball Federation, the sport's world governing body) events, including the World Series of Beach Volleyball, the same consideration was not extended to the NVL. Over the next few years, several players, including Chara Harris, Brooke Niles and Travis Schooner, were banned by the AVP for playing in NVL events.

"The athletes were unhappy with the AVP, but they were so afraid to seem ungrateful. And I fully appreciate that," Walsh Jennings says. "I am so grateful for the opportunities in my sport. However, unless you push for more and better, the status quo is going to be the same and the status quo right now is unsustainable. The lifestyle is beautiful, but you're living on the couch. You cannot make a living playing on the AVP."

Kerri Walsh Jennings plays with her kids in the yard of their home in Manhattan Beach, California. Melissa Lyttle for ESPN

AS THE FIRST AVP tournament of 2017, the Huntington Beach Open May 4-7, loomed nearer, Walsh Jennings says players were mostly dug in on two points related to the contracts. The first was that players were asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement, or NDA, in order to receive the contract. That meant those who signed the NDA were unable to discuss its contents with players and counsel who did not. The second was the exclusivity.

"If you make every Sunday in the AVP, that means you will play 24 days of competition, yet the AVP wants 365 days of exclusivity," Walsh Jennings says. "Some athletes won't make it past Day 1, so they'll have eight days of competition for 365 days of exclusivity. If you take home eight third-place finishes, you bring home $27,000. If you win every event, you take home just over $50,000 and that's before you deduct travel costs, expenses and taxes. It's not sustainable. I want our sport to be professional, and right now it's a hobby."

While the specific language within the contracts is not public, Sun says exclusivity is a necessary component to rebuilding the AVP brand. "We want AVP to become the preeminent tour for professional beach volleyball," Sun told espnW via e-mail through the AVP's communications department. "Currently, there are several tours, all competing to attract the top players. Our goal is not to get caught up in what other tours and affiliated individuals are trying to accomplish. We are solely focused on what's best for the AVP, because, in turn, that is what will be the best for the players and the fans. The most pragmatic way to accomplish this is by exclusivity."

Sun also reiterates that the exclusivity is not absolute. "I wish it were as simple as some individuals make it seem -- that we are the greedy ones trying to diminish the other tours and oppressing the players into our exclusivity," Sun wrote. "However, that's far from the truth. The reality for our situation is the same as it is for any other business, it's simply a matter of trying to garner the best players so that we can all benefit by making this platform work. We are simply trying to build a brand, and this really shouldn't be an issue."

“Kerri seems to come off as perfect on TV and she's not. She's the sweetest, softest person on the planet, and yet she has teeth and she can bite.”

Casey Jennings

According to several players, as negotiations stalled, Sun gave players a deadline of April 27, a little more than one week before Huntington Beach, to sign or said he would be forced to shutter the tour. "There was zero negotiation," Walsh Jennings says. "It was no, no, no on every single point."

In the meetings at her home, she used the examples of the U.S. women's hockey and soccer teams to illustrate the power in standing unified. If they held out of the Huntington Beach tournament -- or even threatened to do so as a group -- she believed the AVP would be forced to meet the players at the negotiating table.

"It was all of us trying to come to the understanding of how much strength we have as a unit," Casey Jennings says. "Some wanted to hear it, some were scared and some thought, 'I don't think the sport is worth any money. I don't think I can make a living at this sport. I'm just going to play it for fun and have a job.'

"The other vibe was that me and Kerri had a backdoor agenda," Jennings says. "That was the hardest part. The most hurtful thing that Kerri and I had to go through was convincing people that we didn't have a check from another tour and weren't prospering from getting everyone on our team."

Perception, as they say, is reality, and because Armato, the man behind the World Series of Beach Volleyball, is also Walsh Jennings' manager, players were skeptical about her intentions in protesting the AVP contract.

Kerri Walsh Jennings was five weeks pregnant with her daughter, Scout, when she played in her gold-medal match at the 2012 London Olympics. Melissa Lyttle for ESPN

In 2013, Armato, the former CEO of the AVP, announced his return to beach volleyball with the WSOBV, the first FIVB-sanctioned World Tour event in the U.S. since 2003. In 2015, the WSOBV kicked off the qualifying process for the Rio Olympics. A year later, the series was held post-Olympics, and in 2017, it returns to Long Beach July 13-16 with the President's Cup -- a tournament of 16 top American and international teams. (ESPN is partnering with the WSOBV to air the President's Cup live as well as additional WSOBV events in 2018.)

Armato has plans to expand to three events in 2018 and in April, he announced a partnership with the NVL, which will hold its first of four tour stops in Long Beach the same week in July. The partnership also allowed the NVL to increase its annual prize purse from $300,000 to $450,000.

"Leonard's her manager. That totally complicates things," says 2004 Olympic bronze medalist Elaine Youngs, who retired in 2010. "You want to hope she's doing this because she cares about the sport. But I would question her motives. That's how it's always been in the sport. It's an individual sport. Everyone is fighting for every last dollar and there's not a lot of trust between players to stay together and fight for everything we want.

"I love Leonard. His wife was my partner. He did so much for the sport and I think he's great for beach volleyball. Under him, we had a strong domestic tour. The level of play has gone down because our domestic tour isn't as strong. But it seems slightly shady that they are working together."

Further complicating matters, on April 11, Walsh Jennings filed a breach of contract suit in L.A. Superior Court against the AVP for $150,000. She says back in September 2016, the AVP determined she had breached her contract by writing that Facebook post and, in turn, did not pay her for the final year of a three-year personal services contract to use her name and likeness and make media appearances. She says she tried to persuade the AVP to make good on the payment, but in the end, she was forced to sue the tour.

"We have a court date set for 2018," Walsh Jennings says. "It's a nightmare. All of this is really disappointing. But I was willing to put all of this aside and fight for what I thought was right and negotiate a great contract for myself and the athletes."

Kerri Walsh Jennings with her new partner, Nicole Branagh. The pair played together briefly after the Beijing Olympics, before splitting in 2011 when Misty May-Treanor came out of retirement and returned to the sport. Melissa Lyttle for ESPN

There were days, Jennings says, when the frustration was so overwhelming he suggested his wife acquiesce and sign the contract, put her head down, collect her winnings and finish her career with a gold medal in Tokyo. "She said, 'I will never do that,'" Jennings says. "My wife is losing two endorsements, prize money, the opportunity for more endorsements. But she's not worried about herself. She's worried about the 12-year-olds coming up."

Still, the pushback from within her sport weighed heavily on Walsh Jennings' mind. While most of the comments she received from fans on Facebook and Twitter were supportive, she knows some players began to view her actions in the way Youngs did, with skepticism. "My character was called into question," Walsh Jennings says. "That absolutely devastated me because it came from people who have known me for 15 years."

Those who know her, she says, should know that when she believes in something, she fights for it with all her heart. Fans of the game, however, and sports fans at large, might have a tougher time embracing her in the roll of disruptor. "Kerri seems to come off as perfect on TV and she's not," Jennings says. "She's the sweetest, softest person on the planet, and yet she has teeth and she can bite. I love that about her."

She is the yin to her own yang, the type of woman who uses descriptors like "beautiful" and "blessed" to describe the ugly moments in her life and then swears like a longshoreman when discussing her favorite spiritual gurus. She refers to her relationship with Jennings as a 16-year love story, yet is open about their struggles as a couple. When asked about the legacy she would like to leave in her sport, the all-time winningest woman in beach volleyball recalls a story from 2003.

She and Jennings were in Chicago for the AVP's Chicago Open and had stopped at an ATM near Oak Street Beach. "I turn around and see Michael Jordan walking down the street," Walsh Jennings says. "Michael Jordan. He's got his dope-ass hat, he's got a cigar in his mouth." Frozen, she points out the legendary Bulls player to Jennings, her boyfriend at the time, who yells, "Michael, Michael!" Jordan stops, turns around. "And Casey goes, 'You are a badass m-----f-----,'" Walsh Jennings says, accentuating each syllable of those last two words.

"How rad is that?" she says. "That's what I want. When people see me, I want them to think, 'There goes a bad m-----f-----. And she was also a really wonderful person.'"

As the deadline to sign neared and a boycott of Huntington Beach appeared imminent, a group of players met with Sun at the AVP offices on April 24. The next day, Casey Patterson, a 2016 Olympian, posted a photo on Instagram of himself and seven other players standing in front of the AVP logo.

"Met with Donald and the AVP associates yesterday to gain more knowledge, clarity and future direction of the tour," he wrote in the post. "It was such an enlightening experience with honesty and issues expressed by all. The AVP is focused on the future of the sport at all levels and providing even more opportunities for its players. Our experience was so positive and we can't wait to compete in Huntington Beach."

Over the next two days, players began to break ranks with the group and sign the contract. Walsh Jennings believes they were worried that if they didn't, the tour would cease to exist. When the deadline passed, only the Jennings, Summer Ross, Brooke Sweat, Bill Kolinske and Robbie Page had not signed. After missing Huntington Beach, Ross and Sweat eventually signed.

"It wasn't just Kerri and Casey. That's the way it gets painted, and that was not the case," Branagh says. "We were having meetings and discussing what we could do and the players were all together. Other players were definitely in charge. That's the truth. At the end of the day, I don't know what happened. I think people were scared."

Kerri Walsh Jennings and Nicole Branagh have officially committed to playing the 2017 season together, and say the plan is to continue to the Tokyo Games in 2020. Melissa Lyttle for ESPN

THIS WAS SUPPOSED to be a recharging year. Instead, Walsh Jennings found herself without a partner. Ross had signed the contract, saying, "The AVP met us in the middle to my satisfaction. I know they have a big vision for beach volleyball to grow and be as successful as possible."

As Walsh Jennings looked around the sport, she began to eye up-and-coming player Sara Hughes, a three-time All American at the University of Southern California and one of the first crop of players to graduate since beach volleyball was named an NCAA championship sport in 2015. "All I wanted to do was play with her," Walsh Jennings says. She reached out to Hughes on multiple occasions and even flew to Gulf Shores, Alabama, to watch her compete with her partner, Kelly Claes, in the NCAA championships in early May, but Hughes declined.

"That would have been a smart move for Hughes, playing behind Kerri's block, having automatic points in the main draw, playing with one of the most experienced players ever," says Dane Selznick, Walsh Jennings' and May-Treanor's former coach and the recently appointed beach development rep for USA Volleyball. "Kerri's the kind of player who can win with anybody. She can take a player and make them the best they can be. It would have given Sarah a jump on her career. But I guess she has patience and wants to wait."

A few weeks after returning home from Gulf Shores, Walsh Jennings met her coach, Marcio Sicoli, at the 14th Street courts for a scrimmage against one of the Canadian teams. Knowing Walsh Jennings would need a practice partner, the Canadian coach reached out to Branagh to join the scrimmage.

A former Olympian, Branagh had given birth to her second child 10 months earlier, hadn't played internationally in four years and planned to play only in local AVP tournaments in 2017. But after the scrimmage, Walsh Jennings says she "had chills for hours" because of how well she and Branagh, her teammate for a brief stint in 2011, clicked on the court. That afternoon, they began talking about rekindling their partnership. "When I think of two mommies with five kids between us traveling the world and chasing Olympic dreams, I'm like, game on," Walsh says.

She and Branagh have committed to play the 2017 season together and then re-evaluate for the future. But the plan, they both say, is to see this partnership through to Tokyo.

"I just want to play," Branagh says. "When I started the season, this scenario did not enter into my mind. I didn't think about the possibility of being Kerri's partner. But what do I do, say no to Kerri Walsh? It's a great opportunity to do something amazing. But I signed the contract. I have to ask permission to play in any tournaments or events or exhibitions with Kerri. She's not playing in the AVP and for me to fully commit to what we're doing, I'm at risk of being banned by the AVP."

Kerri Walsh Jennings wears a necklace that says "Don't Trip" and says it means, "Don't sweat the small stuff." Melissa Lyttle for ESPN

MIDWAY THROUGH MONDAY'S practice, Sicoli calls for a break. Walsh Jennings and Branagh grab water bottles and towels and Walsh Jennings sits down cross-legged on the sand. It's the third week of their new partnership.

"You guys look great together," says Youngs, Branagh's partner at the 2008 Olympics, who is in town from San Francisco to help Branagh and her wife move into their new home. "Like no time has passed. Kerri, how's your shoulder?"

"It feels great," Walsh says.

"What do you mean? We're still 20!" Branagh says, and then reaches down with both hands to pick up an invisible load. "But now we work out by lifting our kids. My son's a tank. I do squats while holding him."

Holly McPeak, a former teammate of both Branagh and Youngs -- and Armato's wife -- is on the next court over coaching two women who recently graduated from USC, a daily reminder for Walsh of the young players for whom she is fighting. It's a small community, beach volleyball; everyone knows everyone, so relationships are important. Today's competitor could be tomorrow's teammate. For Walsh, that underpins the need for players to remain unified in support of the next generation.

"I want to focus on what I want in life," Walsh Jennings says, rubbing a charm that hangs from one of three necklaces she wears every day. "It says, 'Don't Trip,'" she explains. "Don't sweat the small stuff." Instead, she has figured out what is big enough to fight for and has dug her heels into the sand.

A few hours after practice, Walsh Jennings receives a Google alert when the AVP announces it will turn three of its 2017 events, in New York, Manhattan Beach and Chicago, into a "Gold Series," offering more prize money and points for competing athletes. She and Branagh say plans for a Gold Series were never communicated to players during negotiations. "When I got the email, I had a big smile," Walsh Jennings says. "It's working. That makes me proud. I felt like it was a win for our little Rogue One team who had the courage to rock the status quo, and it was a win for all the athletes. But it's not enough. I hope the trend keeps happening."

That night, other players texted Walsh Jennings with the same sentiment.

"I can't wait to see the end of this," Jennings says. "Whether she gets the attention or not, she's done enough. She can hang it up right now. But I hope one day, a lot of people come up to her and say, 'Thank you.'"

They might say that thing Jennings said to Jordan, too.

Alyssa Roenigk is a senior writer for espnW, ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com whose assignments have taken her to six continents and caused her to commit countless acts of recklessness. (follow @ESPN_Alyssa on Twitter).