Kerri Walsh Jennings started both days of pool play at the ASICS World Series of Beach Volleyball visualizing the same scenario. She's at the apex of her jump at the net, and then:
"The rhythm and the hammer," Walsh Jennings said. "It's been hard for me to change that in my head. That part of me is a big part of me. It's been 30 years of doing that."
But there is no hammer in Walsh Jennings' game at Long Beach. Through three matches, all of which were wins for her and partner April Ross, she's instead relied on pokey kills and left-handed swings (which Ross referred to as "baller") instead of spikes.
"I have no choice," Walsh Jennings said. "There's no gray area."
The three-time Olympic gold medalist is playing in her first tournament since dislocating a shoulder July 10. And despite the stylistic changes, which also include underhand serves, she insists she's satisfied with her performance.
"Ugly plays out here," Walsh Jennings said. "Weird is good out here. I like it, but it's all about rhythm. I launched one out, and it felt like the best contact I've had with my left hand in my whole life, and it was 10 feet out. It's just unpredictable, but I think it's getting better."
Before the start of the ASICS World Series, Leonard Armato, the founder of the event and someone who's known Walsh Jennings for years, echoed that any version of her — left-handed or not — is good enough to compete and win.
"Let me just say this: 90% of Kerri Walsh, I don't know how that measures up to other athletes, but the thing about an athlete who's a great champion like she is, she has this will to win," Armato said. "If you remember, some of Michael Jordan's best performances were when he was sick. So you've got to put that in perspective."
In their first match at Long Beach, Walsh Jennings and Ross easily defeated Victoria Bieneck and Julia Grossner of Germany, 21-15, 21-18. Even without the same level of power to her game, Walsh Jennings was effective blocking shots and diving for balls. Afterward, she talked about returning to the beach.
"So nervous," Walsh Jennings said. "I mean, it's so much different training than playing, you know? I've been training without April for two weeks. This is the best competition in the world, and we know we're still capable. So yeah, I was really nervous. But that was really fun."
Ross had no concerns about how her teammate might perform with a month of recovery time.
"I wasn't curious to see how she would be," Ross said. "No, I had no premeditated expectations. I was just like, we're going to get out there, we're going to be us as we are, and we're going to be big and go after it. I think we have a lot of potential this way."
The duo's second matchup was against Carolina Horta and Liliane Maestrini, the Brazilian team against which Ross and Walsh Jennings had to forfeit in May when Walsh Jennings initially injured her shoulder. She returned a month later for a FIVB World Tour event in Switzerland, only to suffer the same injury.
This time around, the match wasn't close: 21-12, 21-10. It ended in just over 30 minutes.
In their final pool play match, Walsh Jennings and Ross encountered more of a challenge, defeating Italian team Marta Menegatti and Viktoria Orsi Toth, 22-20, 23-21.
"It's really important for us to come through in tight matches and competitive matches," Walsh Jennings said. "Yesterday, they were blowouts, which is amazing, but we have to get comfortable with that and not panic and I love the fact that we didn't."
The victory guaranteed that the Americans would earn a first-round bye for the elimination round of the tournament, which begins Friday. They'll take on the winner of a match between two teams from Switzerland — Isabelle Forrer and Anouk Verge-Depre versus Joana Heidrich and Nadine Zumkehr.
As the duo tries to advance deeper into the tournament, Walsh Jennings will rely on the advice given to her by Karch Kiraly, a three-time Olympic gold medalist who also suffered from shoulder problems during his career. He told Walsh Jennings to lean more heavily on her partner, and to make this a "fun challenge."
To that point, Ross is comfortable taking on a larger role, even after participating in long tournament runs at the Seattle Open and Manhattan Beach Open that resulted in first-place finishes.
"We were fortunate to stay in the winner's bracket in Manhattan, so our workload wasn't too overwhelming," Ross said. "I feel like it was really good for me to play and then take a few days off, train with Kerri, and then get back into competition now. I feel like we couldn't have planned it any better."