American Olympic medallists Kerri Walsh (left) and April Ross win the Rio Grand Slam on Copacabana Sunday over a team from Poland.
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, March 13, 2016 - That was no ordinary comeback from shoulder surgery.
Only a few months removed from an operation that cut short her 2015 season and threatened to end her career, three-time Olympic gold medallist Kerri Walsh Jennings returned to the sand and teamed with April Ross to capture the $800,000 Rio Grand Slam Sunday on Copacabana Beach.
After a gritty comeback in the semifinals Saturday, Walsh Jennings and Ross defeated Poland’s Kinga Kolsinska and Monika Brzostek 2-0 (21-15, 21-13) in only 31 minutes.
The bronze medal went to ever-improving Germans Britta Büthe and Karla Borger, who scored a 2-1 (21-18, 18-21, 15-10) win over Switzerland’s Anouk Vergé-Dépré and Isabelle Forrer. It was the highest Grand Slam finish for Büthe and Borger.
It was the first podium placement for Walsh Jennings since she and Ross picked up a silver medal last summer in the Long Beach Grand Slam. Following that event, in which she could barely swing her right arm, she played two more international events before shutting down for the season in September.
That decision looked like it put a major crimp in the plans for the duo to qualify for the Rio 2016 Olympics. Walsh Jennings and Ross had been on a roll since creating their partnership, winning six of 20 tournaments on the FIVB World Tour. Instead, the pair is crediting their time apart for pulling their game together.
“When we started out it was almost beginner’s luck - two athletes, two individuals coming together just playing ugly and winning,” Walsh Jennings said. “We had to find us within that. When you start out so high, there’s always going to be a middle part. The middle part for me lasted a little bit too long but that’s because our standards are too high.
“My injury was only a positive. It hurt my heart and the second time I got hurt especially was kind of scary because it was like where are we in this process after you work so hard? But it helped us. We needed something to help us understand each other and work out the core of each other and I feel like we got rid of the (questions) and found the core of the partnership.”
While Walsh was healing, Ross was back on the court with other partners but always mindful of what she wanted to improve upon when Walsh Jennings returned.
“I was just thinking of our system and the system we would run once Kerri was back and trying to work on my defense and still being a big presence with those other players,” Ross said. “Every time I got on the court I was thinking of how I could better us by being out there and competing.
“I felt like I had a lot to work on and I needed to be out there working on all that stuff. And I do think it helps.”
On the same sand where the Olympic tournament will be played, Walsh Jennings and Ross went through the event undefeated to share the winner’s purse of $57,000. They also picked up 800 Olympic qualifying points, a huge score as they race to outpoint their American teammates in order to become one of the country’s two teams in Rio.
“We still need four more tournaments and we’re not going to let off the gas but to be here in Copacabana, to be playing on the same sand we’ll be playing on in the Olympics means a lot,” Ross said. “It was a stride for us.”
It was the first FIVB Grand Slam final for Kolosinska and Brzostek, whose finish moved them into the top 10 of the point leaders in the world rankings.
“We didn’t stress as it was (in the semifinals) so I think we played much better even with this result,” said Brzostek, who will share $43,000 with Kolosinska. “So we can be proud of ourselves so let’s hope we can do it again next week in Vitoria.
“The great service of Ross was the main reason we couldn’t receive the ball and score. That was the biggest issue in our game.”
But reaching the final was the first step in what the Poles agree is their main sticking point - self-confidence.
“It felt good. I hope we can do it every week when we play,” Brzostek said. “I hope we can improve ourselves even more. I think we are not in really good shape (mentally) right now so I hope it will get better and better.
“We need to believe in ourselves more because we have a little problem with that, but I hope this tournament and others will help us.”
Büthe and Borger, who captured the Lucerne Open a year ago, climbed the points ladder but want nothing to do with knowing their status. But they certainly like the results they’re growing accustomed to earning.
“We are not playing against the German teams, we are playing for ourselves against all the teams that are on the other side of the net,” Büthe said. “We’re not going to count, we’re just going to play our best beach volleyball and at the end we’re going to see where we are.”
Vergé-Dépré and Forrer continued to string together top-10 results, They have finished among the 10 best in seven of their last eight tournaments.
“We never came so far, this is the first semifinal for us,” Vergé-Dépré said. “It was really close to go for a medal, both in the semifinal and today.
“We made a big step with points. It really gets us closer to the qualification and I’m really happy about this, even though I’m a little tired.”