Kerri Walsh Jennings has nothing to prove. With three back-to-back Olympic gold medals and three International Federation of Volleyball world championship crowns, the 35-year-old California native is already considered the best beach volleyball player of all time along with her teammate of 11 years, Misty May-Treanor. But when May-Treanor, 36, retired after their third Olympic win at the 2012 Summer Games in London, Walsh Jennings kept going.
Sure, she took some time off after London to have her third baby with pro beach volleyball player Casey Jennings. But by last fall, the 6-foot-2 star was ready to hit the refresh button on her epic career. After dominating her sport for more than a decade, Walsh Jennings, who broke the AVP Tour women's record Sunday with her 67th victory on the professional beach volleyball circuit, believes there's still room for her to grow.
In addition to picking up new partner, London silver medalist April Ross, last September, she's also changing her training plan to in hopes of earning her fourth straight victory at the 2016 Olympics in Rio. Here's how she's planning to swing a four-peat.
Running for fitness
Running on the beach had always been part of Walsh Jennings' training plan, but now, for the first time in her career, she is incorporating an hour of track-and-field-work once a week.
"I just want to challenge my body and remind it how to move freely," said Walsh Jennings, who has added Asics as a sponsor. "For me, running is really empowering. Not only am I working on my stride and strength, but I'm also working on my lung capacity and cardio. It's something I can easily bring with me onto the court."
"Generally, I will go to the track and run a lap or two to warm up, then run up stadium stairs sideways. I'll do high knees and skip a step, too, then head back to the field and do sprints for 50 yards, then 100 yards and so on," she said. "I don't love running, to be honest, but I love the freedom and strength I get from it, so it's a real labor of love."
And so far, it's paying off. "I certainly felt more sure-footed and stable in my movements when I played. I felt more dynamic when I'd pushed off, too."
Enjoying a natural high
Though she doesn't subscribe to one particular diet, Walsh Jennings says she tries to cut out gluten when she can. She loves Paleo recipes, especially anything from Danielle Walker's cookbook "Against All Grain."
She starts every morning with a shake of powder mixed with coconut milk or water, some berries, a handful of greens, spirulina (a blue-green algae) and chia seeds. Before and after her workouts, she usually grabs a low-calorie protein bar, but if she needs a quick hit of energy during a workout, she prefers a shot of honey.
"My sports psychologist turned me onto honey just before the London Games. He said if I was ever feeling low on energy or lack of focus, I just need a little kick. A swig of honey will help reset you and give you the push you need.
"I have been doing that during my workouts and competitions and I love it," said Walsh Jennings, who, yes, keeps a honey bear in her training bag.
While Walsh Jennings enjoyed a winning streak for the last decade, her longtime American opponent April Ross worked hard at knocking her off her throne. They join forces with 31-year-old Ross, who is 6-foot-1 and from California, setting her sights on her first Olympic gold. The pair meet at Manhattan Beach or a local gym five to six days a week and train up to five hours a day.
"I've loved every second with her so far," Walsh Jennings said of Ross. "She's a fighter. She's a worker. She's a geek for the sport just like I am. She wants to grow the game just like I do. We're excited to work our butts off to be the best we can be."
Ross, who played her first four tournaments with Walsh Jennings last fall, initially worried that it might take some getting used to playing on the same team.
"I thought the transition was going to be tough because I had never played on the same side of the net with her," Ross said. "She has accomplished so much and her standards are so high -- I thought she might want me to try to fill Misty's shoes. I genuinely thought we'd be off to a rocky start, but it was so smooth. It's still smooth! I really can't believe it.
"It's a testament to the kind of teammate she is and how generous and understanding she is as a person. I've been so impressed with how she has handle it all."