RIO DE JANEIRO -- Kerri Walsh Jennings, one of the greatest players in beach volleyball history, won gold medal after gold medal after gold medal, in a few pretty interesting Olympic settings.
Playing with then-partner Misty May-Treanor, Walsh Jennings won her first gold medal at the 2004 Athens Olympics, where the announcer proudly told the rocking crowd he would never utter the words "Silence please!" She and May-Treanor won gold again in Beijing in 2008, when they even had a practice session with then-President George Bush. The pair won a third gold at London in 2012, when they played next to the prime minister's residence at No. 10 Downing Street, and while Walsh Jennings was pregnant with her third child.
But playing at a superb venue on a real beach at Copacabana, where the Brazilians have an enormous passion for the sport, Walsh Jennings will not win a fourth gold medal. Instead, she and playing partner April Ross will play for her first bronze medal after losing a two-set match against Brazilians Agatha Bednarczuk and Barbara Seixas.
Passing poorly and making a number of mistakes, the Americans lost in straight sets, 22-20 and 21-18. It was the first loss in any Olympic beach volleyball match for Walsh Jennings (26-1).
"It was rocky," Walsh Jennings said of the match. "You have to pass the ball to win matches, and I don't know how many aces per game they got on me and that's just unacceptable and inexcusable. I've been served [at] this whole tournament aggressively and we handled it in every other situation, and it's really disappointing and heartbreaking not to do it in this situation tonight.
"You can't do anything without a pass. That's what set the tone and we never got our mojo together or anything else."
Asked what it was like to beat Walsh Jennings, Bednarczuk responded: "It's crazy! I don't even realize what it means yet. After we finish the Olympic Games, we'll think about this because now we have to think about the next game."
While Bednarczuk's team plays for gold, Walsh Jennings and Ross will play Brazil's Larissa Franca and Talita Antunes. Before the semifinal matches, many would have expected those two teams to play for the gold. Instead, one will settle for bronze and the other will get nothing.
Walsh Jennings and Ross became a team shortly after May-Treanor retired following the London Olympics (she and Walsh Jennings had beaten Ross and her playing partner, Jen Kessy, in the gold-medal match). They were the favorite to win Tuesday after winning all their previous matches here and also having beaten Bednarczuk and Seixas in other tournaments.
"We could squash that team, and we have in the past," Walsh Jennings said. "I say that with so much respect for them -- they're very, very good. Tonight they rose to the occasion. I certainly did not and there is no excuse for it. It was just terrible execution."
With a packed stadium chanting and shouting boisterously for their team, the Brazilians simply outplayed the Americans, making dazzling one-handed diving saves and extraordinary blocks while Walsh Jennings struggled to pass the ball. She and Ross said they didn't let the Brazilian fans get to them, that in fact, it was a great atmosphere in which to play. They just played below their usual standard.
"I envisioned them coming at me and envisioned them nailing every pass. I was just too quick with the ball," Walsh Jennings said. "I learned this lesson the hard way. Our coaches go over it many, many times. To not go to the finals of the Olympics Games is absolutely devastating."
Walsh Jennings is 38 and will be 42 by the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. Asked whether she can make it to those Games and try again for her fourth gold, she replied, "I know I can. I don't know if I will. I want to win my match tomorrow and I want to go home with a bronze medal."
A bronze would be a first for the beach volleyball legend. It just won't be anywhere as special as a fourth gold.