Three-time Olympic Beach Volleyball champion Kerri Walsh Jennings had to settle for a bronze medal on Copacabana in Rio Wednesday night, though one rally in her three-set win with American partner April Ross will be remembered as the most remarkable in her summer Games career that has spanned five quadrennials.
The third-seeded Ross and Walsh Jennings rebounded from a disappointing semifinal performance 22 hours earlier to score a 17-21, 21-17, 15-9 victory, in a heart-throbbing 54 minutes, over top-seeded and heavily-favored Talita Antunes and Larissa Franca of Brazil in the women's bronze medal match at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.
With the third and deciding set tied at 6 after a successful attack by Walsh Jennings, the 14th rally in the third set traveled over the net nine times. Walsh Jennings had three blocks in the rally, including two against Talita. In the end, a Walsh Jennings attack won the point to give the USA the lead for good as the North Americans scored on the next rally with Ross digging and attacking successfully to make it 8-6.
“April won this tonight with her defense," Walsh said. “You have to be connected and she never ever let me go."
From that point on, Talita and Larissa scored only three more points with Ross and Walsh Jennings producing 10 scores on the next 15 serves in the set that featured six ties and three lead changes.
“Devastating was a huge word and it pretty much captures how I felt last night. Tonight, it was harder than I thought to get up for this match," Walsh said. “It was an honor and a huge, huge opportunity to come and fight for this. It was a highlight of my athletic career."
With the Americans starting slowly in the first set, Ross and Walsh Jennings awoke in the second set. Trailing 13-10 with the Talita serving, Walsh Jennings produced seven of the next eight points in the match with six successful attacks and a block to give the Americans a 17-14 lead. Talita and Larissa never got closer than two points to end the set.
“That is the hardest match to play in sports; one team is going home empty handed; one team is going home with an Olympic medal," Ross said. “I talked to myself all day today. I was in shock last night and it finally got worse throughout the day and so I spent a lot of time in bed with my eyes closed, just visualizing getting up for this match."
With their second win in six international meetings with Talita and Larissa, Ross and Walsh Jennings joined gold medalists Laura Ludwig and Kira Walkenhorst of Germany and silver medalists Agatha Bednarczuk and Barbara Seixas of Brazil on the Rio 2016 Olympic Games women's Beach Volleyball podium.
The fourth-seeded Ludwig and Walkenhorst advanced to the gold medal match Tuesday afternoon with a 21-18, 21-12 win in 36 minutes over Talita and Larissa. The second-seeded Agatha and Barbara defeated Ross and Walsh Jennings, 22-20, 21-18, in the mid-night semifinal match.
The successful podium finish for Ross and Walsh Jennings prevented a streak-ending effort for the United States men's and women's Beach Volleyball teams.
Like Brazil, the Americans have now medaled in every Olympic Beach Volleyball competition since the introduction of the sport into the Summer Games program in 1996 at Atlanta.
With 10 total Olympic Beach Volleyball medals, the American men medaled in 1996 (gold and silver), 2000 (gold) and 2008 (gold) quadrennials.
The USA women have placed on the Olympic podium in 2004 (gold and bronze), 2008 (gold), 2012 (gold and silver) and now 2016 (bronze).
Will there be a 2020 Tokyo Olympics for Walsh Jennings?
“I have no idea," she said. “If I'm going with anyone, I'm going with her and I'm going for a gold medal."