Five-time Olympian Kerri Walsh Jennings is looking for a new partner -- and a new beach volleyball tour -- after rejecting an exclusivity agreement with the AVP that would have locked her into the circuit through the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo.
In her first public comments since breaking with the biggest, richest and longest-running domestic tour, Walsh Jennings told The Associated Press on Thursday that the deal lacked the vision to grow the game and was "a death sentence for our sport." Among her complaints: an eight-stop circuit, with what she called minimal growth in prize money or the number of events, dooming athletes to live with their parents or take full-time jobs to support themselves.
"We're being kept in a small little fishbowl," Walsh Jennings told the AP. "I know our sport deserves more. We've been told we're small, and we believe it."
AVP owner Donald Sun declined to respond to the comments. But when Walsh Jennings missed the deadline to sign before this week's season-opening Huntington Beach (California) Open, he told the AP: "I respect her decisions, and I wish her well."
The decision to opt out of the AVP (Association of Volleyball Professionals) tour also means Walsh Jennings will split with April Ross, her partner in Rio de Janeiro when they won the Olympic bronze medal. Walsh Jennings won three straight gold medals with Misty May-Treanor, who retired after the London Games.
Walsh Jennings and Ross could continue to pair up on the international tour, where teams earn points to qualify for the 2020 Games, but that would mean maintaining separate partnerships domestically and abroad. Ross' decision to sign the deal means she couldn't play in the competing National Volleyball League, which lists four 2017 events on its website.
Walsh Jennings said she was disappointed the partnership had to end. Asked if the two could get back together before the qualification period for the Tokyo Olympics begins in 2019, she said, "April and I are finished. We're not competing together anymore."
"I have a ton of respect for April," she said. "I just have a different vision for the future."
With its party atmosphere dropped into picturesque backdrops like London's Horse Guards Parade and Rio's Copacabana Beach, beach volleyball emerges every four years as the darling of the Olympics. (The bikinis don't hurt with the TV audience, either.)
But the sport's efforts to establish a stable U.S. tour have left it running in the sand.
Beach volleyball athletes have quarreled with USA Volleyball, arguing that the national governing body's efforts were skewed toward the indoor game. The AVP twice declared bankruptcy, and since emerging from the second reorganization it has found itself in competition with the NVL, even though all agree that one stable tour would be best for the sport. And, when the NCAA considered adding beach volleyball to its list of sanctioned programs, among the opponents were indoor volleyball coaches who were afraid of losing their top athletes to the sandier, sexier side of the sport.
Walsh Jennings, who has been at the forefront of many of these fights, said her goal remains to do what's best for her sport. As its most visible and marketable athlete, at least in the United States, she is able to make a living by relying on endorsement deals others don't have.
"I am in a blessed position," she said.
Walsh Jennings also said her objection to the deal has nothing to do with a lawsuit she has filed against the AVP, claiming breach of a personal services contract, or with a dispute over rule changes that led her to boycott an event last summer.
"I know my intentions are pure," she said. "And this is not about not being grateful. This is about knowing there's more and better out there. I believe in the sport. I believe in the sport at the highest level. That's what I'm going after. It's all there for the taking."
And, she said, she couldn't bring herself to sign a deal that would hold the sport back.
"I want to believe in what I'm doing," she said. "I believe in what I'm doing much more than if I had signed this contract."
Walsh Jennings, who would turn 42 during the Tokyo Games, repeated that she is not retiring and is still determined to attend her sixth Olympics. Asked what's next, she said: "I get myself a partner; I don't know who that's going to be. That's exciting for me, to grow toward Tokyo."
And, while Ross and most of the other American professionals are opening the season in Huntington Beach, Walsh Jennings was off to the NCAA beach volleyball championships in Gulf Shores, Alabama.
"I figured I'm not playing this weekend," she said, "so I want to go support the good stuff."