RIO DE JANEIRO — At various times, you may have heard analogies equating the Olympic Games to a massive international circus, a United Nations meeting in athletic arenas or, as an individual pursuit, to reaching the summit of a great mountain or being in the middle of a beautiful dream. You have probably never before heard it compared to childbirth — and yet Kerri Walsh Jennings went there Tuesday, drawing parallels between Olympic triumph and the act of giving birth. And somehow, it made perfect sense.
Walsh Jennings knows of both, having won gold medals in beach volleyball in Athens in 2004, Beijing in 2008 and London in 2012, and given birth to three children. At the 2016 Rio Olympics, she will look to add to her total in the former, while debuting with a new partner, April Ross.
“When you go through something that’s so momentous, and it’s either really hard or really inspiring, you kind of forget the details, and you just remember the feeling that you’re left with,” Walsh Jennings said Tuesday. “Childbirth obviously leaves you with the best gift ever, and the Olympic experience has as well. But you forget the little things. And now that I’m here, it’s like, ‘Oh, my gosh. I forget how special this is.’ I literally get goose bumps 20 million times a day, because you see someone or something, and you’re inspired.
“It’s the same thing with having a baby. It’s all just a miracle, and it’s really fun, and it’s such a journey to get to this point . . . In childbirth you forget how hard it is. In the Olympics, you kind of forget the emotion and excitement.”
Walsh Jennings’s pursuit in Rio is for more than just a gold medal. She is also closing in on a rarified status of Olympians. A gold in Rio would make her only fifth woman in history to win four consecutive Olympic golds in the same event, joining U.S. basketball player Lisa Leslie and Canadian hockey players Jayna Hefford, Hayley Wickenheiser and Caroline Ouellette. (American basketball players Sue Bird, Tamika Catchings and Diana Taurasi can also clinch their fourth straight golds this month.)
Walsh Jennings, who turns 38 two days before the beach volleyball final, would also become the oldest beach volleyball gold medalist, passing American Karch Kiraly, who was 35 in 1996.
“It feels new in so many ways. The energy of the Olympics is something that’s so very, very special. And it’s impossible to recreate. . . . I keep having moments of, ‘Oh, my gosh. We did it.’ Even the old-timers, we love it just the same.”
The process of bonding with a new partner began within moments of the end of the London Games. Misty May-Treanor, Walsh Jennings’s partner of nearly 12 years, had already announced she would retire at the end of the Olympics, and when the duo — considered the greatest in the sport’s history — won the gold medal match over fellow Americans Ross and Jennifer Kessy, Walsh Jennings leaned in close to Ross’s ear during their post-match hug and whispered, “Let’s go win gold in Rio.” Ross was stunned at the time, as the two had never discussed pairing up and were not particularly close.
“We became friends,” Walsh Jennings said. “After hanging out with her, after competing and training with her for a while, it was like, ‘How were we not friends before? You’re so wonderful.’ But competition puts a barrier between you — because I want to kick peoples’ butts. It’s just been a joy to get to know her.”
By this point, some 3½ years after they began competing together, both Walsh Jennings and Ross are weary of questions comparing the latter to May-Treanor, but they know the questions are inevitable on this, their sport’s grandest stage.
“This [Olympics] has a different feel for many reasons, my partnership with April being one,” Walsh Jennings said. “But we’re so ready. We’ve had four years to really solidify our friendship and our team.” Referring to a shoulder injury that required surgery, she added, “This last year when I got hurt and had to play left-handed and April had to play in different ways, it really solidified and binded our team in ways that was really special. She’s more amazing than I ever thought, and I knew she was amazing.”
Walsh Jennings’s path to a fourth gold — and Ross’s path to a first — will be an exceedingly difficult one, as the Brazilian duo of Talita Antunes and Larissa Franca are the overwhelming favorites for gold, having beaten Walsh Jennings and Ross in four of their past five matches. But Walsh Jennings swatted away a question about being underdogs before the questioner could even finish.
“Don’t let the seedings fool you,” she said. “Brazil is good, and I don’t want to take anything away from them. The world is very good at beach volleyball. But we don’t feel like underdogs. I never have my whole life. We’re America. We don’t think of ourselves as underdogs.”
For a few harrowing hours on Sunday, Ross wondered whether her dream of Olympic gold was going to die a lonely death at Miami International Airport, after flight delays caused her to miss her connection to Rio — a fate suffered by many travelers to Rio the past few days — and agents for American Airlines told her the earliest re-booking option with availability was Aug. 6, the same day as the opening matches in beach volleyball.
“I’ve had travel problems before, but I’ve never experienced anything like that,” Ross said. “I didn’t expect a week out [from the start of the Olympics] for every flight on every airline to Rio and Sao Paulo and anywhere in Brazil to be completely full. It was frustrating and it was a little stressful, but at the same time I was so stoked that everyone wanted to get down here to watch the Olympics.”
Eventually, Ross managed to get herself re-booked on a United flight to Rio — on the same flight as Walsh Jennings.
“I feel like we had the best situation, where we could travel together to Rio,” Walsh Jennings said. “That’s how I want to start, and that’s how I want to go out.”