Kerri Walsh Jennings is beach volleyball’s biggest booster — and its harshest critic

Kerri Walsh Jennings, the most decorated beach volleyball player in history, is chasing her sixth Olympics this summer in Tokyo. Photographed at Hermosa Beach Pier, Ca.
Kerri Walsh Jennings, the most decorated beach volleyball player in history, is chasing her sixth Olympics this summer in Tokyo. Photographed at Hermosa Beach Pier, Ca.
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)
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Kerri Walsh Jennings trudges through the South Bay sand, a child in one hand, a dog leash in the other. Questions and concerns about her potentially groundbreaking business are very much on her mind. But as the soft waves of Hermosa Beach splash behind her, the most decorated beach volleyball player of all-time speaks from a heart full of passion for her sport.

“Love and belief have fueled my entire life,” she says. “And there is no limit to our sport.”

At 41, Walsh Jennings has long been the face of the beach volleyball world. She won Olympic gold medals (with former teammate Misty May-Treanor) in a career that has paralleled — and fueled — the sport’s surge in popularity. She’s the mother of three and the founder of a company (p1440, a digital-media platform focused on beach volleyball), yet remains one of the top players in the world. And as she prepares for what will likely be one last run at Olympic glory at the 2020 Tokyo Games, her plans for the future are already well underway.

“I feel like my life has always unfolded in the next logical step,” she says. “I’m very much in Olympic mode. I’m chasing this sixth Olympics and want to go win. But in the process of getting to Tokyo, my world was shaken upside down.”

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Kerri Walsh, a native of the Bay Area, played indoor volleyball at Stanford. She lives and practices in the South Bay, seen here photographed at Hermosa Beach Pier, Ca.
Kerri Walsh, a native of the Bay Area, played indoor volleyball at Stanford. She lives and practices in the South Bay, seen here photographed at Hermosa Beach Pier, Ca.
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Following the 2016 Olympics, in which she won a bronze medal, Walsh Jennings split from the Assn. of Volleyball Professionals tour over a contract dispute and philosophical differences. She and her husband, Casey Jennings, became part-founders of p1440 (a name inspired by the 1,440 minutes in every day) to become a breakaway tour and all-around immersive digital-media property.

“Our sport has not innovated in 30 years,” she says. “We are behind the times. ... Once every four years, our sport is No. 1 in the ratings on TV and literally at the Olympics. Then we go away.”

Walsh Jennings looked at millions of volleyball players and fans (indoor and beach) in the U.S. and around the world and realized, “they’re all starving for resources and content,” she says. “We want to be the go-to place, the one-stop-shop for all of your needs, whether it’s media, live-streaming, long-form and short-form content, getting to know the athletes … We want to tie it up in a little bow.”

It’s the latest trail Walsh Jennings is hoping to blaze. A native of the Bay Area and graduate of Stanford (where she played indoor volleyball), Walsh Jennings became one of the first beach players to gain international acclaim in a sport that was only added to the Olympics in 1996. She has remained outspoken about women’s rights issues in sports, especially within her own.

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“Our sport is inherently sexy — I think bodies in motion are inherently sexy — but we have the added element of our uniforms,” she says, referring to the two-piece bikinis that are commonplace in her sport. “But the way I look at it and always have, if people want to bag on us for our uniforms, they’re a little bit ignorant.

“It’s all about executing at the highest level, and our uniforms are a big part of that. And it’s OK. If the sex appeal of our sport gets people to the beach, that’s fine. I know the passion and the amazing athleticism will keep them there.”

Walsh Jennings feels a deep-seated gratitude toward the game; a difficult-to-explain desire to, in her own innovative way, give back. She’s hoping that, whenever her playing career ends, her efforts away from the sand will help.
“If I believe in something, I’m all-in for it,” she says. “My life is very simple, but it’s really deep and profound. Everything I choose to focus on and spend time with, I care a lot about it. If I’m going to go on the Olympic hunt, it requires me leaving my family. If I’m going to build 1440 with my husband and our partners, it requires time away from [playing], which I love the most. So it’s a total labor of love, and I believe in it.”