Kerri Walsh Jennings is currently training for her fifth Olympic Games, and she is hoping to capture her fourth consecutive beach volleyball gold medal.
At Athens in 2004, Jennings won gold for the first time with her partner Misty May-Treanor, and again in 2008 in Beijing, without even losing a set. In London in 2012, they lost to Australia in a preliminary round, ending their Olympic win streak of 32 consecutive sets, but ultimately won the gold.
With May-Treanor now retired, Jennings is gearing up for Rio in 2016. She is set to be paired up with April Ross, who won silver in London.
STACK: So how is it going with Ross so far? Is it weird not being with May-Treanor anymore? Do you expect to be as competitive as before?
Jennings: I feel really good. April's wonderful. She's a wonderful woman and a really hard worker. We're on the same page and we're having a lot of fun. We have a year and a bit to become the best team in the world, and we're going to take every single day and work our butts off to make that happen.
What's the key to getting "on the same page" with a new partner?
It just takes time and patience to get experience under your belt. No matter how good we each are individually, it takes time to build our morale and rhythm and all these things, and that's what we're working on every single day.
Can you describe your training schedule?
I am covered head to toe as far as my training goes. Right now we're in pre-season, so I'm focused on putting on muscle mass and gaining strength. Into the season, I'll be working more on my agility, my dynamic movement and just being quick and explosive.
What's the biggest challenge of putting on muscle, especially this late in your career?
Plateaus. They stink and they're frustrating, but I think they ultimately serve a great purpose. You know, the change that you've created is becoming a real change and it's going to stay with you. When you plateau, you've just got to push through your comfort zone and challenge yourself even more.
I'm on the beach training three hours a day with my partner. I'm in the weight room twice a week for about an hour and a half, two hours, doing a program called Fast Twitch. I'm in the Pilates studio once or twice a week, and I have a beach workout or a track workout with my Pilates instructor as well, about once a week. I also do a lot of physical therapy. I work with my sports psychologist. My trainers are very good at keeping my workouts diverse and keeping my body guessing.
What do you focus on as far as recovery goes?
Recovery is hugely important for an athlete. Nutritionally, I'm big into eating clean and staying hydrated. But, on top of all of that, I'm a very big believer in having a full day off of rest. The best way to recover is truly [to get] a good night's sleep, to make sure I'm taken care of there.
You have three kids all under 6. How do you make sure you get any sleep at all?
Sometimes you may not be able to get the quantity, but if you can make your sleep quality, then that's where you're going to see a difference.
I have a nighttime ritual that I do every single night that kind of gets my brain and my body into going-to-bed mode. And that's just a hot shower, hot tea or hot water with lemon. Power everything off by 9 o'clock ideally, lights off by 9:30.
It's important to take time to wind down. Rather than working until 11, 11:30, shutting everything off and expecting to fall asleep seamlessly and effortlessly; that's not really going to happen.
This seems a really crucial part of your routine. How would you rate the importance of sleep in powering better performance?
As far as my performance, not just on the court, but in life, sleep is essential on every single level, body, mind and spirit. There are so many positive benefits that trickle down . . . I appreciate my kids more, my patience is higher. I'm happier. Any athlete, moms included, should make sleep a priority.
I actually partnered up with TEMPUR-Pedic for their Mother's Day campaign, which is about celebrating and giving the gift of sleep, essential to all of our lives. A good mattress can be transformative to a night's sleep. I have a Tempur-Flex and use their pillows too.
In addition to your increased focus on proper sleep, what has changed in your training to help your performance on the court?
I've actually upped the ante on my brain training. I do brain training with a device called Versus. I started it just prior to London, but going into Rio, I'll have years of continuous brain training under my belt.
I'm a huge believer in training my brain like it's a muscle, and I believe it will be a difference maker in my career as my partner and I head towards Rio. I am feeling the results in my composure on the court. My ability to focus and recover after a setback is getting way better. My ability to get into the zone and to control that aspect is also more improved, for which I'm grateful. That's an athlete's dream.
That sounds great. Very smart. Anything else that you're doing differently this time around?
Yes. More than anything, the thing I'm doing differently is that I'm just trying to cherish everything. Even though my job is amazing and my office is the beach, it's still a job and I'm really trying to focus on the beautiful parts of my job, embracing it, because I know its not going to go on forever.
What would you say to Olympic hopefuls out there?
I think it's all about creating a habit. If you do something often enough, rather than just once in a while, it becomes a habit. And I think that greatness in a sports profession, and greatness in everything in life, comes from creating great habits and being consistent.
Reflecting back on your career, what stands out most as having been critical to your tremendous success?
My whole career, I've always worked on having a well-rounded, very balanced approach to my fitness, taking care of my body from all angles. And also, making sure that my spirit is filled up, doing things like hanging out with my family, staying close to my faith. All of these things that are important to you can help keep you [stay] grounded throughout.
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