Interview: Beach Volleyball Icon Kerri Walsh Jennings
Earlier this summer, SI Kids spoke to one of the all-time greats of beach volleybal, Kerri Walsh Jennings. Jennings is a three-time Olympic medalist, winning gold in 2004, 2008, and 2012 alongside her long-time partner Misty May-Treanor. But after the 2012 Olympics in London, the legendary partnership she had with Treanor came to an end when Treanor announced her retirement.
Heading into the 2013 season, Jennings has a new partner for the first time in more than a decade. April Ross was announced as Jennings' new partner in August, and this weekend we get a chance to see how they play together, at the AVP Santa Barbara Open.
In our interview with Jennings, she explained the excitement and challenges that come with taking the beach with a new partner. She also took us through the drills and skills she utilizes that make her a world champion, and what it was like to transition from indoor to beach volleyball.
Below is an edited version of our interview.
Is it going to be difficult for you to begin competing with a new partner?
I think mentally and emotionally it’s going to be difficult. [Misty and I are] so in sync and I have done things a certain way for so long with her. I think that will be the challenge. My heart will be a little bit broken, but I’m really looking forward to the challenge. My partner, April Ross, she's amazing. And she brings a lot of stuff to the table that is new for me, and she’s going to challenge me, so I’m looking forward to it more than anything. But I know it’s going to be different, and it’s going to be hard in its own ways. It wasn’t always easy with Misty either. It took us a lot of years to get great, and I think what made us great is that we went through the crap together.
It seemed uncommon for that long of a partnership. Is what your doing now more common?
I’ve been playing for 12 years now, and generally for the typical beach volleyball player, they’ve had three or four partners. The history of partnerships generally aren’t that long, but Misty and I, when you’ve got something special, you’ve got something special. My husband [Casey] and his first partner played together for seven years and that was a long time. At some point you feel like you’ve reached your max, and you need to move on. Misty and I never felt like we reached our max. This new partnership, I’m looking at it for the long haul. [April has] been my competitor for so long, I respect how she plays. Now we need to bridge the gap and become teammates and I’m really excited.
April Ross at the 2012 Olympics
When you played with Misty, how would you communicating between the two of you so she had some idea of where she’s it’s going?
So before the play, we’re giving hand signals. Misty’s starting position in the backcourt, her starting position is the same regardless of whether she’s digging line or angle, and then my fronting, the way I front should be the same regardless of what I’m taking. So then we give block signals and then if things were to change, like if the pass is different or if I see something I want to adjust, I’ll say switch. And then I’ll be taking the opposite of what I initially set up. And sometimes, Misty will say switch. You have to be fluid out there. And sometimes a late switch is the best thing because your not really set up and the hitter is waiting for you to do something, and the longer they wait, the harder it is for them to have the whole court to use. Deception is a big part of it, for sure, but you just need to be able to be fluid, and then have discipline within that fluidity. Even though I’m switching late, I need my partner to trust what I just called, at all times. And then that allows for a really fun team dynamic and chemistry.
With April, how do you build that chemistry and trust between you? Is it just playing together?
Playing together is huge, and practicing just as hard as you would play. In practice I think it’s really important to do the controlled drills, but you have to act like they’re live. You have to play with that intent and that focus. I think that’s a challenge for all athletes, whether you’re a kid or a professional. You have to train just like you will be playing a game.
What are some drills you do at the net first on the blocking side? What are some particular drills that you would have a young player do?
I would put them on a bench, and maybe have them a foot back from the net, and we’d just work on them putting their hands up and over the net really fast, really aggressively, and then explode up and over so they would know what it feels like to go up and over the net. I have the same problem, I tend to do two moves when I block, but it should just be one. Just up and over, really close to the net. The more you penetrate, the better it is. That drill helps you realize the ab strength you need to use, the shoulder strength, the hand strength, and that’s just a fun way to break down that skill. And then I would do a lot of live drills, where you just block in front of live hitters, and have them take turns hitting line or angle, and you need to work on your setup and your footwork, and then your move over the net.
When you’re bending over, you’re trying to set up an angle, are you also trying to set up an angle that when they hit into you, it’s hitting where…?
Sure, that’s hand position. So if I’m blocking the outside hitter, and here’s the antenna, I don’t want my hand like this, because they’re going to call me on it. I definitely want to push my outside hand in, my inside hand just straight down. The more straight down, the less they can cover it, but hand position is huge.
Kerri Walsh Jennings (left) squares off against April Ross in the 2012 Summer Olympics in London
So you have to have court awareness at al times, to know where your hands are going, and also just to have awareness of your opponent?
Absolutely, and people definitely have tendencies. For us I know when we play the Brazilians, certain athletes, I know when they get a wide set, they’re going to try to turn it back, so I’m really focused on my outside hand turning. That’s really important. Same with blocking, same with every skill, you block with your feet, you have to get your feet there. That allows for a stronger foundation with your core and your shoulders and your hands, so you can cover a lot more court, but as a blocker, like I said, people try to do too much. Your not going to block every ball, and I think channeling the ball is just as important as getting a block. Understanding that, and knowing if you’re disciplined and consistent, that means your helping your teammates behind you, and that means your doing a great job.
Even though opponents try to hide their intentions from you, how are you looking for tells about either how they’re going to hit or how they’re going to set up to block you?
There’s a lot that goes into that. The pass tells you a lot, where the set goes tells you a lot, and then you can set up your block accordingly. And if you’re the hitter, you just have to make sure to really be patient, to see where the set goes, and then you can go and attack it and have all these options. If you’re early, it takes those options away. So I think patience, when you’re an attacker is huge. It takes away your explicitness, and your options if you’re too early. So that’s a big part of it. When your blocking, if you go up too early, the hitter is going to see the whole court, and you’re going to sell out your defender. Same thing, you have to be patient, and you have to have great timing so you can be really deceptive up there. Make it look the same every single time.
What was the best advice you when you switched from indoor to beach?
You have to have patience, because it will drive you crazy, the differences. They’re so subtle when you go from indoor to beach, like the wind and the sand. And for me, I was really comfortable in indoor, but I thought I’d go to the beach and be pretty comfortable, and I was so uncomfortable. So just understanding that your going to be uncomfortable, and it’s a process. You need to get your sand legs, you need to take a different care of the ball. Indoor you have to take care of the ball, but you can have quicker touches, and on the beach you really have to take care of it, and hold onto it a little bit longer – just put a premium on ball control. If you have good ball control – indoor and beach – your going to be successful. I don’t care if you’re the tallest girl out there or if you’re the littlest girl – you need ball control, and then it allows for everything else to happen. But the first thing I would say is just play. Play and play and play. Drills are great, and that’s really important to fine tune, but you need live situations to learn the wind, to learn where to put the ball when you’re in trouble, and that’s a great way to kind of get chemistry with your partner.
Interview by Jeremy Repanich
Photos: Getty Images