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Nicknamed “Six Feet of Sunshine”, Kerri Walsh-Jennings formed part of the greatest pairing beach volleyball has ever seen, teaming up with Misty May-Treanor to win three Olympic gold medals and three world titles and go unbeaten for a remarkable 112 games. On returning to the Olympic stage at Rio 2016 with a new partner, April Ross, she won bronze at the age of 37.
Born in California, Kerri Walsh was an exceptionally talented college volleyball player, helping Stanford University win the 1996 and 1997 NCAA titles and being named MVP in both finals, against Hawai’i and Penn State respectively. She was also only the second college volleyball player in history to feature in the All-American first-team four years in a row.
Walsh was only 22 when she made her Olympic debut, at Sydney 2000, with the USA volleyball team. Beaten in five sets by Russia in the semi-finals, the Americans finished out of the medals after losing to Brazil in the match for third place. Though Walsh had already begun suffering the shoulder problems that would dog her throughout her career, her ailment did lead her to improve her tactical understanding and reading of the game and enhance her sense of positioning.
Also competing for the USA at Sydney 2000 was Misty May-Treanor, who partnered Holly McPeak in beach volleyball, with the pair ending the competition in fifth place. After the Games, May-Treanor invited Walsh to join her, setting the wheels in motion for what would become the most successful tandem in the history of women’s beach volleyball.
May and Walsh began their long reign on the domestic and global scenes in 2001, going on to dominate proceedings on the U.S. professional tour and at the Olympics and FIVB World Championships. Unbeaten in 90 matches when they arrived at Athens 2004, the USA duo swept all before them at the Faliro Olympic Beach Volleyball Centre, winning every match in straight sets and crowning their majestic run by defeating Shelda Bede and Adriana Behar 21-17, 21-11 in the final.
World champions in 2003, 2005 and 2007, May and Walsh were on a 101-match and 18-tournament winning streak when they began their Olympic title defence at Beijing 2008. After cruising through to the final, they beat China’s No1-ranked Tian Jia and Wang Jie in two sets to retain the gold. They eventually took that unbeaten run to 112 matches.
Walsh, who married fellow beach volleyball player Casey Jennings in 2005 and had two children in the years after Beijing, was back on the sand with May-Treanor in 2011, with the pair setting their sights on a third straight gold at London 2012.
It duly came their way on the court on Horse Guards Parade, where the two Californians saw off April Ross and Jennifer Kessy in two sets in the final. May-Treanor promptly announced her retirement, having played her part in 21 consecutive wins at the Olympics since 2004, a run in which the fabled American pair lost just one set, against Austria’s Schwaiger sisters in the preliminary round in London.
Walsh-Jennings invited Ross to be her new playing partner, before giving birth to a third child in 2013. On returning to competitive action, she and Ross nailed down a place at Rio 2016, where she would go in search of a fourth Olympic title at her fifth Games, at the age of 38.
The American pair made it to the semi-finals, where they went down 22-20, 21-18 to Agatha Bednarczuk and Barbara Seixas de Freitas, the only defeat Walsh-Jennings ever suffered in her entire Olympic beach volleyball career. Atoning for that reverse, she and Ross then secured bronze with a three-set win over Brazil’s world-No1 pair Larissa Franca and Talita Antunes.