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Kerri Walsh Jennings returns 'home' with new-look volleyball event

Kerri Walsh Jennings returns 'home' with new-look volleyball event
Kerri Walsh Jennings, shown in 2017, is staging and competing in a three-day p1440 event at Huntington Beach this weekend. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

It’s not quite true to say Kerri Walsh Jennings will come full circle this weekend when her p1440 beach volleyball tour makes its final stop of the season in Huntington Beach.

Doing so would suggest she’s ending her remarkable career after winning three gold medals and a bronze medal in five Olympic appearances, and although she turned 40 in August, she’s not ready to step off the sand. “I’ve got a couple more years left and I have a lot left in the tank,” she said.

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Still, staging and competing in the three-day event at Huntington State Beach has triggered a wave of nostalgia for Walsh Jennings. She moved to Huntington Beach in 2001, after she graduated from Stanford and switched from indoor volleyball to the beach.

Surf City is where she fell in love with her husband, beach volleyball standout Casey Jennings, and where she met Misty May, her partner in those gold-medal triumphs. “So it’s kind of like a homecoming this weekend,” said Walsh Jennings, who now lives in the South Bay.

It’s also a beginning, of sorts.

The p1440 Huntington Beach event, which starts Friday and will feature men and women competing in Top Guns and Young Guns invitational tournaments for $300,000 in prize money, is the third event of the tour’s inaugural season. Walsh Jennings, her husband and their backers, former volleyball player Dave Mays and his wife Kasia, envisioned p1440 as an immersive and thought-provoking experience.

The “p” stands for platform, encompassing music, health-and-wellness advice, kids’ activities, and food offerings on site and resources available online. Admission is free this weekend, and VIP packages are available.

The “1440” refers to the number of minutes in a day. For Walsh Jennings, mother to children ages 9, 8 and 5, 1440 minutes aren’t enough. She sees the ambitious p1440 concept as not just a tournament, but a lifestyle, and a lifeline to athletes she believes are underpaid by the Assn. of Volleyball Professionals, the main tour in the United States.

Beach volleyball is a big attraction in the Olympics. She wants it to thrive and be visible in the four years between Games.

“This is something that needed to be done, to save the professional side of the sport,” said Walsh Jennings, who split with the AVP last year over its demands she play only its events in the United States. “We love the sport so much. It’s given us so much. And my husband and I want to leave it in a better place than when we came in. And largely if you look at the sport as a whole, it’s in a much more powerful, much more beautiful place. However, at the top, it sucks. So we’re established to create new opportunities for the athletes to compete and gain exposure, and we’re doing that by bringing new eyeballs to the game with our other offerings outside of just the beach volleyball competition.”

The competition will include elite players from the United States and other countries. In the Top Guns competition, athletes will compete as individuals and will later form teams, sometimes among longtime rivals. The first three rounds will consist of pool play, with the first- and second-place finishers selecting a partner to take to the final. The final will be a best-of-three format. The Young Guns event will feature a men’s and women’s 24-team main draw and modified pool play.

While all of that is happening, fans can take a yoga class, join a volleyball skills clinic, observe a live cooking demo, or watch UFC star Michelle Waterson lead a cardio kickboxing class. The core principles of p1440 are competition, development, entertainment, and health and wellness. “We want to be relevant every day of every year,” Walsh Jennings said.

She hopes to stage four to eight events next year. “We want to serve the volleyball community from grassroots on up because this applies to everybody,” she said. “I don’t care what gold medal you’re chasing in life. It might not be a real gold medal, but you’re chasing something in life, and feeling good in your body is never going to go out of style and it doesn’t discriminate."

The second event this year, at Las Vegas in mid-October, was a qualifier for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and allowed Walsh Jennings to continue her new partnership with Brooke Sweat.

Walsh Jennings won bronze in Rio in 2016 with April Ross, but they later split. Sweat won’t compete this weekend, but she and Walsh Jennings are scheduled to resume training next week for a competition that starts Jan. 2 in the Netherlands.

Walsh Jennings has said Tokyo will be her last Olympics, but she must get there first. It won’t be easy. Two pairs per gender per nation will make it based on results during an ongoing qualifying period. “Brooke and I are down pretty low on the points ladder because of injury and sitting out so we’ve got to make a climb,” Walsh Jennings said. “We’ve got to do what we’ve got to do.”

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Her kids have already asked her about the trip to Japan. She doesn’t want to disappoint them, or herself, and she’s going after another Olympic berth with her usual all-out commitment.

“I’m surrounded by 20-year-olds in the game. I feel like them. I don’t look like them, but I feel like them on the inside,” she said. “I think how you feel and the energy you have is the best indicator of where you’re at, and I feel like I live a pretty honest life.

“I look in the mirror a lot and say, ‘Do I want this?’ Because it requires all of you to do this. And I’m in.”

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