What better way to preview the 2016 Rio Olympics than testing out Copacabana Beach? That's exactly what the top four U.S. men's and women's beach volleyball teams are doing this weekend when they face off against Brazil in a team event in Rio de Janeiro through March 1. Here are some of the athletes' first impressions of the Olympic city and the match action so far:
It’s amazing that we’re out here in 2015. We’re getting a glimpse of what the 2016 Olympics will be like and getting used to the environment, the sand, the fans, how hot it is. All of that is huge for us. Playing on the Copacabana sands, under the hot Rio sun with the loud Brazilian fans, is something you can't get anywhere else. We can take those mental pictures and lessons learned back to the States and remember them when we’re training.
My partner, Jen Kessy, and I started practicing together in mid-January. It’s somewhat frustrating to be out there because our intentions with the ball are good, but they are not as crisp as we’d like them to be. We’re playing one game to 21, and if you aren’t ready, it’s tough. When you get done playing, our bodies are so used to playing and then you feel like you still have energy left -- you want to keep going.
The coolest thing about being in Rio? I love that we are Team USA. We don’t get many opportunities where we can all root for one another. On the world tour, we are competing for ourselves as much as we are for Team USA because we’re all vying for Olympic spots. Here, there is no pressure with Olympic qualification; everyone is cheering for one another. That’s special, that’s not something we get all the time.
The first day was a learning experience for us. We learned what level our training is at compared to where we want it to be during the season. I think we're feeling good for this point in the year. I keep catching myself saying, “Oh yeah, I should never do that,” or “Oh yeah, I can't be foot faulting ... ever!” Learning how to deal with mistakes is a huge part of being an elite athlete. I'm loving my experience here in Rio. It's a great city and I feel very fortunate to have the opportunity to compete against the best in the world during my preseason.
Sadly, my first match back from having my baby went too quickly. It was only to 21 points, and I would have loved to have two games to 21, obviously. I was a little nervous that I was going to embarrass myself or my team -- I didn’t know. I haven’t played a lot, only for one month. It was better than I expected; we lost, and I hate losing, but it’s a good learning experience for me. It felt really good to compete again. It gives you that something in your chest that you don’t get when you’re not playing.
After one of my first hits went down pretty hard, I turned to Emily and said: “Wow, I can still do that!” It’s surprising sometimes; I thought for sure I was going to get blocked. The ball went down hard and I was super fired-up. I still got it -- it’s just going to take a little longer to get back.
Kerri Walsh Jennings
I firmly believe in visualizing and knowing where you want to go in life. This event is perfect for that. We are hearing the sounds, seeing the sites, feeling the energy. Each place we play is unique, and Copacabana is certainly that. There is a lot of chaos and energy, so we’re going to learn how to deal with it because we know the Olympics will be that times a million. At least we will have an idea, so when we prepare mentally, we will be ready for that.
There is definitely heat to contend with here. The thing about the heat is that it’s the same for both teams. The Brazilians train in this every day, but they’re still hot, and sweat. I’m never worried about the heat. I personally like it when it’s hot or really cold because I feel like we can outlast other people. We played at night and it was no issue. We came out here a couple days early to get used to it; we trained twice a day in dead heat and got better with every training session.
Off the sand, we hiked Sugarloaf Mountain and that was wonderful. We trained twice at the army base and then went to the gym afterward. It’s at the bottom of Sugarloaf, and everything is so beautiful. You’re in the culture and you don’t feel like a tourist much because you’re in the mix. I appreciate that.
I love the Rio heat. I'm enjoying playing and also watching so many high-level games with only a five-minute wait in between the games. Playing in Rio is tough without many of our U.S. fans, but the Brazilians are all really nice to us. This one staff member follows Jen (playing partner Jennifer Fopma) and I around asking if we need water, fruit or anything.
During our matches today, it was pretty hot! In our first match, you could tell we were a bit rusty and we just began training three weeks ago. In the second game, we settled down and found our groove, and hopefully we can carry that into the weekend. It's great to be here to get a taste of where the Olympics will be held. The experience just makes you want to train even harder to get back here in 2016!