How Kerri Walsh Jennings made it to a fifth Olympics at age 38
Kerri Walsh Jennings is competing in her fifth Olympic Games -- her fourth in beach volleyball and her first with playing partner April Ross. And Walsh Jennings, who turned 38 on Monday, has already won three gold medals with her former playing partner, Misty May-Treanor, at the 2004, 2008 and 2012 Olympics.
But this time, the road to the Olympics was much tougher. Two shoulder injuries and Walsh Jennings' subsequent recovery threatened the pair's potential Olympic plans, and forced Ross, 34, to hit the sand with other playing partners at the end of last season. When the pair began playing together again, Ross upped her game to compensate for Walsh Jennings' injuries.
"I really had to step up and become a little bit bigger on the court next to her," Ross said. "Say she digs a ball, I feel like I have the authority to go on two -- instead of setting her, I can hit the ball over. When we needed points from my serve, I really had to go for my serve. I think that brought about a new weapon for us."
And Walsh Jennings, known for her optimism, found another bright side to it all. "Aside from the temporary heartbreak, [the injuries have] been such a blessing, and it really brought April and I closer together," she said.
They rolled through the competition in Rio until Tuesday night, when the pair lost to the Brazilian duo of Agatha Bednarczuk and Barbara Seixas. It was the first time Walsh Jennings had lost a match in her 12-year Olympic beach volleyball career.
Now Walsh Jennings and Ross will play for the bronze medal Wednesday night, against Brazil's other team, Larissa Franca and Talita Antunes.
But regardless of the outcome, few can argue that Walsh Jennings is an Olympic legend, and that her recovery from injury at age 38 was nothing short of amazing. She shared with us three of the secrets that helped her get back to Rio for an unlikely fifth Games.
A new approach to strength training. In the lead-up to Rio, Walsh Jennings hit the studio once a week, then did two more Pilates sessions on the beach each week. "I really [ramped] that up," she said, "And that [carried] over into the way I play the game, my posture and my body awareness in general. My instructor is a Master Jedi; she's just so rad."
Walsh Jennings also focused heavily on strengthening her upper and middle back with a thoracic spine trainer. "That's a crucial component of why I [came] back stronger than I've ever been -- to have the support of my thoracic instead of just being all arm," she said. With more strength coming from her back muscles, "I can take those swings without being in jeopardy [of injuring myself again]."
Embracing body work. For the first time in her career, Walsh Jennings incorporated massage into her regular routine. "I had never done it, I've never committed," she said, "I need the soft tissue work. I need to keep everything freely moving so nothing gets bound up."
Walsh Jennings works with a trainer and on her own with a vibrating ball.
Maximizing her mental muscles. Walsh Jennings spends a significant amount of time on mental training, including regular meetings with a sports psychologist. She also uses a program called Versus. Treating her brain like a muscle has paid off on the volleyball court -- and she says it also has been fun.
"On my iPad, I have this headgear on it that collects your brainwaves, your beta waves. It feels crazy half the time, but you're doing these exercises and you're just doing them with your brain. You try to make these three circles come into one circle. You're shooting free throws. You're making a plane glide and fly. It's about neuroagility and working on your focus endurance."