America’s roster of Olympic greats includes those who have defied age to cap their careers with glorious farewell titles. That includes Carl Lewis and Bonnie Blair, Michael Phelps and Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Dara Torres and even late, four-time Olympic discus gold medalist Al Oerter of Fort Myers.
If four-time Olympic beach volleyball medalist Kerri Walsh Jennings is to do the same this summer in Tokyo just shy of her 42nd birthday, it’ll be with one of Southwest Florida’s own, someone no one once would have imagined, at her side.
“When you talk about beach volleyball, you think of Kerri Walsh and probably Misty May,” said Fort Myers native and former FGCU indoor volleyball star Brooke Sweat (’09, Resort & Hospitality Management), Walsh Jennings’ current partner. “I think it would be a great story, her going out on top.”
After a good but not great start together – at least based on Walsh Jennings’ mighty career success – there’s no guarantee the duo will do well in Tokyo, or will even get there, for that matter. Only two U.S. teams will qualify, and April Ross and Alix Klineman comfortably lead the American standings while ranking second in the world. Walsh Jennings and Sweat hold second in the U.S. with qualifying more than halfway complete, but another duo lies within striking distance. The outcome likely will not be determined before the last run of tournaments in late May and early June.
Injuries have accumulated almost as much as the years for Walsh Jennings and Sweat, 33, who made her Olympic debut in 2016 while Walsh Jennings was making her fifth appearance.
But after Walsh Jennings – who played for the American indoor Olympic team in 2000 before winning beach gold with May-Treanor in 2004, 2008 and 2012 – was admittedly the weaker link with teammate April Ross in settling for bronze in 2016, Sweat makes clear she wants gold more for her partner than herself.
“I want to do it for myself, too. Don’t get me wrong,” she said. “But getting that for Kerri would be everything. She’s taking one more shot at it. For her to step back into it, really give everything she’s got … people don’t know who Brooke Sweat is. People know Kerri Walsh Jennings.”
Twist of fate
That these two are even playing together was unimaginable to those who happened to be there the first time they met, almost 15 years ago at an exhibition event in Fort Myers.
Walsh and May, as the Olympians were then known, faced off against five local teams, from youth level up to FGCU, on a trucked-in sand court at a car dealership in January 2005. Smiles were everywhere in the event that promoted the sport and raised money for girls’ sports.
But even with six players on their side of the net, the locals mostly floundered in the windy conditions as the Olympians toyed with their competition.
“That was pretty funny,” said Sweat, a Canterbury School graduate who was an FGCU freshman at the time. “I didn’t even like beach volleyball.
“I was just home and found the pictures. Just to see me and Kerri there together, like, what in the world? We knew Misty and Kerri because they were just coming off their (first) gold medal. But we were clueless as to who we were really with.”
It was more than Sweat’s disinterest with sand volleyball – not even a sanctioned collegiate sport at the time and only through three installments as an Olympic sport – that made her so unlikely to someday be playing alongside Walsh Jennings.
Sweat didn’t even play that day because of knee trouble that left doubt whether she’d even make it through her college career, much less become a top beach player and Olympian someday.
“I have never known her to play on a healthy knee,” said longtime FGCU assistant coach Danny Mahy, who has been with the 16-year-old program for all but Sweat’s junior season and part of her senior season. “But she just fought through it.”
So driven is Sweat to succeed – and so extraordinary is her ability to compartmentalize pain – that Mahy recalls her gulping back tears after FGCU’s second postseason win in as many days at the end of her sophomore season. It was a five-set win in which FGCU rallied from 2-1 down. Sweat, FGCU’s first ever signee and still second in program kills despite being an undersized outside hitter at 5-foot-9 (in shoes), was among the team leaders that day in kills, aces and digs.
“Brooke on one knee was still the best player on the court,” said Mahy, who still has a framed promotional poster signed by Walsh and May hanging in his office. “She was just smarter than everybody. She was more physical. She could still jump higher than everybody. She could still swing. She hit the ball at a very high clip. Her defense – she knew where the ball was going before the attacker knew. She understood the game at a level you don’t see from someone that age.
“I just remember her being in tears because of the pain,” he said. “But she wanted to be out there for the team. For her teammates. It’s never about Brooke. The perfect example: she wants to win a gold medal for Kerri. She is the most unselfish player I’ve ever been around.”
A good place
Just as in 2016, when Sweat and then-teammate Lauren Fendrick were the second of two American teams to qualify for the Summer Games in Brazil, a maximum of two duos per country will go again next summer to Tokyo.
After Walsh Jennings and Sweat both underwent major shoulder surgeries in 2018 – a sixth lifetime procedure for Walsh Jennings and second for Sweat – they’ve had to go long routes, through early-week qualifying rounds, just to get into the main draws of world tour events that come with Olympic qualifying points. They won a four-star (of five) event in China last May and had three earlier semifinal showings in three-star events. But since summer they also were ousted in the first round after pool play in three bigger events: the world championships and two five-star events.
After a coaching change, recent results have pushed the pair to No. 7 in the world and second best among American teams.
“We’re in a really good place together as teammates,” Sweat said. “I know she’s got my back and I have her back. We can have those hard conversations that need to be had. I think it might have taken us a little while to figure out how to communicate and figure out what’s best for the other person and how to communicate things how they need it communicated to them. I think we’ve figured that out.
“The coaching staff around us is helping us quite a bit with all the changes that have happened. We’re in a good spot. Really we want to win, and we want to learn what that feels like and learn what it takes to do that over and over again.”
Sweat, who steadfastly refused to blame her ailing shoulder for contributing to Fendrick and her going 0-3 in pool play in the 2016 Olympics, has lived and trained with the country’s best in southern California since 2012 – away from her husband and extended family in Estero.
But for all her success, including universal recognition as one of the game’s best, savviest defenders, a season traveling, training and competing with Walsh Jennings has given her entrée into an unseen world.
“It’s been really comfortable with her. She’s been really great,” said Sweat, pointing to Walsh Jennings’ guidance coming back from shoulder surgery, among other supports. “She’s just been a huge help. It’s been so much fun getting to know her off the court, learning what she’s been doing in the past decade and more to be the best in the world.”
Now with a golden opportunity in their sights, Sweat just wants to make sure she holds up her half of the bargain.
“I understand what we’re up against,” said Sweat, noting how much the beach volleyball world has continued improving each Olympic cycle. “I know it’s going to be a fight. I’m going to give it my all. And I know we’re going to give it our all together and do everything possible. I want to be able to look back and say I did everything possible.”