RIO DE JANEIRO — Kerri Walsh Jennings raised both arms to the small section of the Beach Volleyball Arena waving American flags, covered in sand and smiling. She printed across the sand and high-fived volunteers, smiling some more. She found her partner, April Ross, in the middle of the court and hugged her, her eyes red with tears. She spoke briefly with officials, and then she ducked through a doorway, maybe for the last time.
Walsh Jennings would not allow herself to consider, not for one second, whether her stirring bronze medal victory over Brazilians Larissa and Talita marked her final Olympic appearance. “I have no room in me to think about tomorrow,” Walsh Jennings said. “I focus on the present because that’s where my joy is.”
But Walsh Jennings has three gold medals and three children at 38 years old, and so every Olympics could be considered her last. She could be forever proud of Tuesday night’s performance if it is her last. She and Ross come back from one set down and a deficit in the second, setting aside devastation from Monday night’s semifinals, the first loss of Walsh Jennings’s Olympic career.
“To not get up for a bronze would be dishonoring our country,” Walsh Jennings said. “It was a highlight of my career.”
Five Olympics, four medals and three children later, Walsh Jennings walked off the sand of Copacabana Beach, maybe for the last time. If she did exit the Olympic stage, Walsh Jennings will leave as nothing less than one of the greatest champions in American sports.
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She has played in five Olympics including her appearance for the 2000 indoor team, winning three golds and a bronze and earning a fourth-place finish. She has won more professional titles than anyone. She and longtime partner Misty May-Treanor once won 112 consecutive matches. At Stanford, she made four all-American teams, and her Cardinal teams went 122-11, won four Pacific 10 titles, advanced to three final fours and claimed two national titles. She won her gold in London five weeks pregnant.
“It’s incredible,” said Don Shaw, her coach at Stanford. “And then consider the fact she’s done it with a bad shoulder her whole life.”
Hitting a volleyball, Shaw said, is like hitting a baseball. Some human arms are not designed to do it at full bore at great frequency. Some people can do it for an entire career and emerge unscathed. Some will encounter injury at a young age and never be the same. Walsh Jennings is one of those.
From the time Walsh Jennings arrived at Stanford, Shaw said, her offseasons were crammed with visits to the doctor. In her career, she has undergone five surgeries. One year — either her sophomore or junior season, Shaw can't remember — Walsh Jennings barely practiced.
"She served the ball left-handed and didn't hit a ball hard all season, and she still hit for an unbelievable hitting percentage," Shaw said. "Basically, she was doing it with one arm. She's been doing it her whole life. It's ridiculous she's playing at that level, at that age, and making it through physically."
At Stanford, with diminished power at such a young age, Walsh Jennings learned how to exploit the geometry of the floor. She watched for subtle shifts in the defense, aware of empty space. She perfected the placement of her hits.
Despite her massive collegiate success, her craftiness would have taken her only so far in indoor volleyball, a sport increasingly reliant on huge spikes and massive blocks. But it was perfect for beach volleyball, with all its open space and running down shots.
Think of Walsh Jennings as a journeyman major league pitcher, surviving on a high-80s fastball and guile — and winning the Cy Young every year. In other words, think of pure fantasy. "The analogy is, there isn't one," Shaw said.
And yet Walsh Jennings never stopped. She kept playing long after she had proven everything possible. She kept playing, at these Olympics, after giving birth to three children.
"She loves to compete," Shaw said. "She loves to win. Striving to win. It's not just winning. It's trying to win. It's competing. And it's fun. That's the thing about sand volleyball."
Walsh Jennings's chance a fourth gold medal evaporated past midnight Tuesday night, when Agatha Bednarczuk and Barbara Seixas edged her and Ross, 22-20, 21-18. Walsh Jennings acknowledged the reason they lost. The Brazilians picked on her, never relenting on a night her passing — the effectiveness of how she set up Ross after receiving a serve — malfunctioned.
"I felt so horrible for her," Shaw said. "A moment she's been fighting for a long time. That's the way this sport is. You get knocked down. Sometimes you have time to get up, and sometimes you don't."
Walsh Jennings had time, in a sense, but only for bronze. She and Ross lost the first game, 21-17, and fell behind in the second, 11-8. Time comes for the greats. What could have possibly motivated Walsh Jennings, after all she had done? It was a consolation match, a warm-up act in front of a hostile crowd.
There was a game to win, and beach volleyball is fun "She never gives up," Talita said. Walsh Jennings dove headlong into a plastic barrier to keep a point alive, and she screamed into the night when she and Simpson pulled it out. They came back, Walsh Jennings exalting with each point, and stole the second game, 21-17.
With the third set tied 6-6, Walsh Jennings blocked three consecutive spikes at the net, saved the ball from falling out of bounds and finished the point with a well-placed hit to the back-middle of the court. She bent at the waist and screamed. The Americans led for the duration, and they won.
Walsh Jennings is synonymous with the sport. "When you talk about beach volleyball," Talita said, "you talk about Kerri Walsh." Perhaps it would have been fitting for her to leave, if it's over, with gold. But Tuesday night honored her remarkable career just as well.